The Green Knights

Today I had my first flight as a “Green Knight” of VMFA(AW)-121. For those of you who don’t know, each letter in that acronym “VMFA(AW)” indicates something specific about the squadron: the “V” denotes its a fixed-wing squadron (as opposed to rotary-wing); the “M” identifies it as a Marine Corps squadron; the “F” and “A” are for our primary missions, fighter and attack; the “(AW)” indicates we are organized for all-weather operations; and 121 is our numerical designator. After three and and half years of training, I have finally joined an operational–“fleet”–unit.

I finished at the training squadron, VMFAT-101 (“T” indicates it’s a training squadron)’ on Tuesday, September 4. The last three weeks with them were a flurry of air-to-air flights, often twice a day. The pace was hard–so many flights packed together meant a great deal of studying too–but the flights were fun and fast-paced with plenty of air combat. My final flight was an combination air-to-ground and air-to-air tactics sortie as I led a division of four aircraft on a self-escort strike. We fought our way into the target area, bombed a target, and fought our way back out. It was a complicated and intense flight, and after I finished the training squadron kicked me unceremoniously out the door.

Looking back, I am amazed at how much I’ve learned. Generally, I have little patience with technical applications–I prefer to focus on “big picture” stuff, like theories and tactics. Yet my profession is dauntingly technical, requiring operation of a complicated machine designed to accomplish many different missions. In order to juggle everything effectively, pilots and WSOs must develop a sort of “muscle memory” about their equipment: we have to be able to operate on instinct in order to focus meager brain power on the layout of enemy fighters, air defenses, and the thousand little surprises that come up in such a dynamic environment. No plan, after all, survives first contact with the enemy…or even Air Traffic Control. It requires a lot of rote memorization and repetitious practice to make the most out of training flights.

Yet even with all my training, I am only technically 60% combat ready right now. The aircraft of my new squadron have more capable equipment than those of the training squadron. This stuff blows my mind, and I am making a concerted effort to learn about it: encrypted radios, sophisticated sensors, new modes of operating our radar, The tactics of real combat go far beyond the introduction I received in the training squadron. So it is true what they say: as an aviator you never stop learning. If I ever become really proficient in the systems I am operating now, there will be new ones to learn being installed on our fleet aircraft. In short, I have not “arrived”–I still have a lot to learn and a lot to prove.

The increasingly technical dynamic of my job makes it hard to write about, which is why I have slowed my posts related to the military. Back in TBS, every week we were introduced to new skills and theories. In the early part of flight school, every month or so I was introduced to a new type of flight. At this point, however, I’m past the theories and broad overview knowledge and required to specialize in my own airplane and our unique tactics–the details of which are probably pretty boring to the outside world.

Yet I could not have found a better place to take this next step. VMFA(AW)-121, or the “Green Knights,” is one of the most storied squadrons in the Marine Corps. It was formed as VMF-121 here at Miramar in 1941, along with the 2nd Marine Division, and was among the leading elements to hit Guadalcanal in 1942. The maintenance Marines of the squadron assaulted the beaches of Guadalcanal as infantry, fought through the jungle to capture the partially finished Japanese airfield there, and begin directing flight operations to bring in Green Knight aircraft. Stories tell how the fighting was so close to the runway that Green Knights would take off and drop ordnance without even retracting the landing gear, and circle back to the field to reload. VMF-121 would later fight from the legendary forward air bases of Espirito Santo Island, Turtle Bay, Bougainville, and Emirau. During WWII, the Squadron produced 14 Fighter Aces while downing 209 Japanese aircraft in aerial combat–scoring higher in both categories than any other squadron.

The Squadron dropped more bomb tonnage during the Korean War than any other Navy or Marine Corps squadron, devastating enemy airfields, supply dumps, bridges, and railroad yards. In November of 1962, the “Green Knights” deployed to NAS Cecil Field on the coast of Florida in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the Vietnam War, the Squadron helped pioneer new night-attack and targeting systems. On December 8, 1989 the Squadron acquired the F/A-18D Hornet (my own aircraft), and was redesignated as VMFA(AW)-121– the first Marine Corps F/A-18D Night Attack Hornet Squadron. Slightly over one year later, the Squadron deployed in support of Operation Desert Shield/Storm and earned the nom du guerre “Heavy Haulers” for dropping more ordnance in support of ground forces than any other squadron. More recently, the Green Knights flew combat missions over Afghanistan and Iraq–in fact, I checked in immediately after the squadron returned from their latest deployment to the Middle East.

The Green Knights are proud and demanding. As a new WSO, I am expected to read and learn various tactical manuals in preparation for my “combat wingman” qualification, and they have set high standards for me and the other new check-ins. Long days of study are the norm, and I usually fly back-to-back flights. The veterans are strict with everything from how we brief to how we talk on the radio. But I sense behind the work a strong commitment to maintain our tradition of excellence and battlefield success. Wish me luck!

On Freedom and Predestination

When Christians talk of freedom, they often phrase it as freedom from sin or death–sometimes more poetically as freedom from the slavery of sin or death. This is not an open freedom; it implies no license. In other words, Christians are not, in fact, free to do as they wish. St. Paul cautions, “Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery…do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh…you may not do what you want” (Gal 5). Christians are offered personal freedom only in the sense of making a choice between a “yoke of slavery” to “the flesh,” and something else. That “something else” is a release. It is the freedom Christians believe Christ won for humanity: the freedom from death and their own sinfulness. It is the freedom to be, each individually, as God created us.

Because the freedom we are used to talking about — the freedom to do as we wish — is much broader, it is perhaps difficult to understand why Christianity would narrow the possible choices of action down to a simple duality: Christ (and the freedom He offers), and death. But in this distinction Christianity is consistent, because Christianity teaches that God created us in His image and likeness to be His free lovers and servants. To do anything else is to reject God. There are only two choices — God or not. Every action we commit is by the Grace and to the Glory of God (i.e. selfless, loving, and joyful) or else is selfish and destructive.

Understanding such a stark choice brings up, inescapably, the issue of predestination. Of course we are destined for God; He created us for Himself. His plan for us since the very beginning is that we find our way to Him of our own free wills. It would be then correct to say of a man who goes to heaven, “he was predestined for it.” All humanity is. But the criteria for getting there in the first place is the exercise of our free will–we are each responsible for choosing God ourselves. C.S. Lewis captures this idea very well in his book Perelandra, whose protagonist Dr. Ransom has decided to do “the right thing” in a critical moment despite his fearful (and selfish) protests:

“You might say, if you liked, that the power of choice had been simply set aside and an inflexible destiny substituted for it. On the other hand, you might say that he had [been] delivered from the rhetoric of his passions and had emerged into unassailable freedom. Ransom could not, for the life of him, see any difference between these two statements. Predestination and freedom were apparently identical.”

I believe that we cannot be predestined to hell. That would infringe on our freedom of choice. It is, rather, our path to heaven that is predestined. When we do what is right–defined, perhaps, as what is both good and necessary, according to our best intention and reflection–we are doing no more than that which God predestined us to do when he “called us by name” (to quote Isaiah). Though we may choose “not God” by doing something selfish and easy, or hurtful — an inherited tendency ours explained in the narrative of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden — God has made each of us only one path to Him, for He created us. One person’s calling is not another, and though they may be guilty of the same sins, their redemptions are going to be as individual as they are. Perhaps this is what scripture refers to when it speaks of “the Elect:” those who succumbed to their destiny or enacted their freedom to choose God (take your pick). Those who don’t are exiled from heaven.

A clue to what they have lost is found in Lewis’ pregnant phrase, “the rhetoric of [Ransom’s] passions.” The word “rhetoric” means “manufactured nobility or grandeur,” and the classic art of Rhetoric was taught to politicians so they could inspire others to their cause. We all have a tendency to think of ourselves with ‘nobility’ and ‘grandeur,’ imagining our needs, wants, and opinions to be so important that we forget to love and enjoy what is around us. This is the sin of Adam: wanting to elevate himself and doing so by seeking what was proper to God, or the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent deceived Eve in this using rhetoric, inspiring her to believe she could be like God if she ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (incidentally, St. Augustine was once a teacher of Rhetoric, and his Confessions are filled with contempt for that art which teaches men seduce others with good-seeming words). In this phrase Lewis alludes to the human tendency to to let their passions run away with them in a way that is actually harmful, something that is a result of Original Sin. For example, it is natural to find a member of the opposite sex attractive, but following that passion into adultery is clearly wrong.

The faculty by which we regulate our passions is our reason. We have the ability to rationally decide if any given passion is Good or Bad–whether a particular passion is bringing us closer to God (love for a family member, perhaps, or charity for a stranger) or separating us from him (excessive ambition or a desire to hurt another). The ancient definition of Man (from Aristotle) was a rational animal, a creature subject to physical instincts and passions yet endowed with reason for free will. The essence of humanity, then–what it is that separates us from other physical creatures–is our reason, and our unique place in God’s creation as the creatures of His image. To abdicate reason in favor of passions is to reject God’s call, and therefore one’s humanity. Lewis speculates on this again through the thoughts of Ransom:

“Up till that moment, whenever he had thought of Hell, he had pictured the lost souls as being still human; now, as the frightful abyss which parts ghosthood from manhood yawned before him, pity was almost swallowed up in horror–in the unconquerable revulsion of the life within him from positive and self-consuming Death… The forces which had begun, perhaps years ago, to eat away his [enemy’s] humanity had now completed their work… Only a ghost was left–an everlasting unrest, a crumbling, a ruin, an odour of decay.”

Understanding this relationship between passions and reason sheds light on the Christian definition of freedom as freedom from the slavery of sin and death. To be free is to choose God’s path, as best as our reason allows us. Following one’s passions into choosing anything else is leads to error and sin.

Our only hope for everlasting life is to assume the mantle of full humanity: not an indulgent understanding of “human weakness,” not a claim to an unrestricted lifestyle, but a responsibility to choose God–and His specific and individual destiny for us–over every other option, and thereby be free.

A Defense of Real Cork

I am very interested in wine. This is partly my parents’ fault, since they are also very interested in wine, and I grew up with it at the dinner table every night. But they weren’t just interested in drinking it: my father especially is fairly knowledgeable about how wines are made and labeled (no small subject of inquiry). Following in his footsteps, I myself have recently begun to investigate the ancient art of fermenting grapes into a drinkable beverage. And I have found it very intriguing.

I should be very clear here. I find that knowing about wine is almost as fun as drinking wine. I don’t mean the pretentious knowledge about, say, which wine labels are better than others, or which wines can be correctly paired with what kinds of foods–that sort of “knowledge” is, in my experience, largely a result of one person trying to appear better than others. It is, essentially, condescension. I am not interested in that. I am interested in discovering where certain wines come from and how they (hopefully) reflect their origins. I am interested in attempts, both old and new, to make a better wine by combining various grapes. I am interested in the fermenting process, the aging process, and most of all in the finished product. I am interested because I think it truly is a craft, just like making fine furniture or painting pictures.

I am, for example, fascinated that champagne was developed as a desperate bid to make marketable wine from the Champagne region of France, which apparently has very poor natural conditions and soil (from a winemaking perspective). The medieval monk Dom Perignon was one of the chief engineers of sparkling wine, and his name is immortalized now as the label of a very famous champagne. Likewise interesting is the fact that Riesling winemakers will leave a portion of their grapes on the vine past the first harvest so they will ripen further. This is a risk in Germany, when autumn frosts come early and hard. But the longer the grapes are left on the vine, the sweeter, more ageworthy, and more flavorful are the wines made from them. And even if the grapes freeze, they can be made into a very sweet wine called Eiswine (“Icewine”).

Such examples of winemaking illustrate the painstaking care and ingenuity that goes into producing the bottle of wine that I choose to drink. And that makes drinking the wine a Romantic experience–not romantic in the sense of being appropriate to two people who are in love, but rather in the sense of being “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized.” A bottle of wine made with care should represent both the place it came from and the intent of the winemaker who created it. It can produce an astounding variety of flavors and even enhance the flavor of the food we eat while drinking it. Above all, like any great endeavor of human ingenuity, it should inspire us.

The English author Evelyn Waugh recognized this, and in the novel Brideshead Revisited, during a darkly amusing and depressing dinner with an excessively practical, grasping, manipulative man named Rex Mottram, the main character muses:

Those were the kind of things he [Rex] heard, mortal illness and debt, I thought. [But] I rejoiced in the Burgundy. How can I describe it? The Pathetic Fallacy resounds in all our praise of wine. For centuries every language has been strained to define its beauty, and has produced only wild conceits or the stock epithets of the trade. This Burgundy seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his. By chance I met this same wine again…in the first autumn of the war; it had softened and faded in the intervening years, but it still spoke in the pure, authentic accent of its prime and, that day, as…with Rex Mottram years before, it whispered faintly, but in the same lapidary phrase, the same words of hope.

So perhaps it is easy to see why I have been sorry to see the intrusion of wax synthetic corks and plastic screwtops into the world of wine. It isn’t that I refuse to recognize the benefits of these technological advancements: cork taint, or the intrusion of molds and bad flavor into the wine from the cork, is one of the oldest and most consistent problems with wine bottling. In fact, when the waiter at a restaurant pours a little wine into the glass for you to taste before the wine is served, it isn’t so the you can decide if you like the wine. It’s so you can be satisfied you are getting a wine untainted by the cork. Without question, synthetic corks and screwtops largely eliminate this problem. Furthermore, as both substitutes are less porous than cork, they help wines age better. Nevertheless, the quality of the cork is one among many unknowns that make wine drinking such a romantic experience.

When holding a bottle of wine in my hand, I feel great anticipation. The bottle, cork and all, holds the promise of new flavors and experiences. The fact that it may turn out either very good or simply mediocre (or even unpalatable) heightens the anticipation. The particular ceremony required to open the wine–peeling the foil, inserting the corkscrew, and extracting the cork (hopefully without leaving bits of cork in the wine) all further contribute to that anticipation. And synthetic corks (especially screwtops), while they may eliminate the possibility of cork taint and bad extractions, also kill some of this anticipation.

I am sad, then, to hear more and more winemakers are switching over from real cork. I will miss the satisfying pop! that heralds the opening of a wine bottle, and examining the stamped and stained cork itself as a prelude to tasting the wine. Hopefully a few winemakers, at least, will retain the risk and the reward of using real cork — and the soul-satisfying act of opening (and tasting!) a new bottle of wine will retain its magic for old-fashioned romantics like me.

On the Current Conflict in the Middle East

The controversy over America’s “War on Terror,” since it started in 2001, has occupied much of our national attention. After swift and decisive battlefield successes in 2002 and 2003, we are now struggling to fashion democracies in the countries we occupied, and expending resources and lives in the process. The issue of whether or not we should continue our involvement provokes much criticism and righteous debate. Many Americans find our involvement in this “war on terror” to be useless, foolish, arrogant, and dangerous, and think it would be prudent to pull out.

It is not the first time American has seen such debate. Between 1 September 1939 and 7 December 1941, similar opinions were voiced and similar decisions were made. On 1 September, Hitler’s Germany provoked war with our ally Britain by invading Poland, and on 7 December we were pulled into the war ourselves after Japan, Germany’s ally, attacked Hawaii. Between those two dates, FDR — a controversial American President who had alienated many with his “socialist” domestic policies — attempted to support freedom and advance our interests by taking the British Side and providing them resources against much righteous criticism that such actions were useless, foolish, arrogant, and dangerous. There are, of course, differences between FDR and George Bush, such as the fact they hailed from different parties and different political ideologies. But both were accused of warmongering, both faced vile opposition from journalists and opposing politicians, and both were loudly accused of ruining this country with their policies. Certainly their most important similarity is that they both claimed to stand up for freedom and democracy, and protect America’s interests abroad.

History has endorsed out FDR’s actions. The Nazi regime stands exposed as guilty of perhaps the greatest and most significantly evil endeavor in human history, the industrial and industrially cruel murder of some 11 million persons, six million of which were Jews. Additionally, in their quest for economic and military dominance, they wrought destruction upon the entire continent of Europe by (among other atrocities) demolishing and starving Warsaw, brutally conquering peaceful Denmark and Norway, plundering France, and relentlessly bombing civilian London. Yet through 1940 and 1941, all this was merely unpleasant to America, the unfortunate effect of another petty European conflict. In those dark years, FDR used deceit and presidential powers to the utmost of his ability to aid our old democratic allies against their enemies, against the will of his constituents.

George Bush is attempting to do something of the same thing. Our enemies now are guilty of great evil, from the use of ethnic Kurds as test subjects for Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons, to the cruel and systematic oppression of women under the Taliban. Therefore, deposing them was a good thing. Furthermore, though perhaps Iraq and Afghanistan (and, it seems, Iran) are not explicitly allied with the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center and Madrid subway cars, the simple fact that these countries turned a blind eye to terrorist training they knew was directed against their hated enemy, the United States, establishes an implict connection. Al Qaeda may be stateless, but that does not mean states do not make them welcome. And according to our laws, harboring a criminal is criminal in and of itself.

Herman Wouk, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, wrote a two-volume work on World War II. The Winds of War and War and Remembrance follow the experience and growth of Victor Henry, a U.S. Navy Officer, his family, and the many people they meet (American and otherwise) in the events of that War, and their parts in the struggle against America’s fascist enemies. As with all great novels, these books are not meant merely to entertain, but to teach and communicate something of the human condition; in these the author attempts to reveal the depth of human goodness and evil; to document the human ability to strive, to suffer, to hurt, and to love; and to show the final virtue of individual goodness, and through it the goodness of nations. It is a masterful work. In a recently written forward to the books, Mr. Wouk compares the struggle of America in World War II to the current “War on Terror”:

“As I write these words late in October 2001, a new war is just beginning, global again in scope but totally different in character. In the last global war, before VE day and VJ day came, there befell the collapse of France, the Bataan death march, the fall of Singapore, the siege of Stalingrad, bloody Tarawa and bloodier Guadalcanal; and at the hidden heart of that global war, concealed by the smoke of battle, there burned the holocaust. That eternal benchmark of barbarism, let us remember, was set not by a Third World country, not by Orientals, not by the Muslims, but by the Germans, an advanced European nation. The evil in human heart knows no boundary, except the deeper, stronger human will to freedom, order, and justice. In the very long run, that will has so far prevailed.
“Now it is the destiny of America — for all its faults and weaknesses, the greatest free society in history — to lead the world against a new grim outbreak of evil, a savage stab at the core of freedom on earth, a dark shocking start to a new millenium. May the Father of all men prosper our arms in the new fight, as He prospered — in the end — the cause of men of good will in World War II.”

The “destiny of America” is something felt keenly by many in this country. There is no greater expression of it than in the young men and women who serve in the military. We have been involved in this conflict since 2002, and thus for five years every person who enlisted has done so in the full knowledge that they are supporting this effort with their lives. In fact, the loudest voices against this “war on terror” and its campaigns, though they can be quite reasonable, are often from those people most removed from it: college students and professors, living lives insulated from the rest of the world on university campuses; correspondents and journalists paid to cover politicians in circles of power; and relatively idle wealthy young professionals concern themselves with political issues as a sort of hobby. This is not a bad thing, since our country has consistently prevented the rise of fascism in this country by subjecting our military to the will of our civilians and our civilian government. Yet it seems that such arguments revolve not around prudence, but fear disguised as prudence: fear that we will lose face with the world, fear that we invite more Islamic antipathy and terrorist attacks, fear that we will suffer the embarrassment and manpower drain of another Vietnam. According to these arguments, prudence is avoiding such sacrifices in the first place. I disagree. I believe true prudence is eliminating the breadbaskets of hate, the places of evil, oppression, and poverty in this world. Those hate-filled places are where terrorists breed and become strong.

We are proud that we did not suffer dictators like Hitler to bring destruction and totalitarianism upon the world. We should be likewise proud not only of deposing the evil regimes of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, but proud also to continue this work and bring democracy, as best as we can, to the shattered countries they left behind. If we endure the sacrifice of servicemen in this mission, then we should remember that they were unafraid: they volunteered to defend and carry our values to other nations; they supported America and its promises to the world with their lives. They represent our best, and we should take heart from their idealism, for to turn away from this opportunity to help a poor part of the world might seem prudent, but is in fact foolish, dangerous, and wrong. We, “for all [our] faults and weaknesses, the greatest free society in history,” are especially able to make a difference in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems right, therefore, that we should be the first to champion “freedom, order and justice.” Whether we want it or not, it is our responsibility and that of all the good men and women in the world.