On the Harry Potter Books

Whenever I ask one of my peers if they have read the Harry Potter books, I often hear derision in their response. “That’s not my kind of book,” they say, or else: “I think all the attention is silly;” “It’s stupid that people are so obsessed about it;” and “I’m not really into fantasy or children’s books.” To distort things further, many Harry Potter apologists defend it by proclaiming how “dark” the later books became, as if an element of darkness in the story suddenly makes it better or more worthwhile. The high public visibility of the series has reduced it’s effect to trends–the fantasy trend, the popularity trend (viewed as good or bad), the “dark storytelling” trend, and so on. This is a disservice to J.K. Rowling’s fine books.

(The following discussion contains “spoilers.”)

The story of Harry Potter, told in seven separate books, is essentially a fairy tale. Like most fairy tales, there is a wondrous or magical element to the setting, though (also like most fairy tales) the setting is also familiar to us readers. The story isn’t particularly dark, either: it can be frightening and sad, but the goodness of the main characters is evident throughout as they struggle to do the right thing in each book (and mostly succeed). There is no question that their situation becomes more dire from book to book, as the evil they’re fighting gets stronger in proportion to their increasing maturity. But rather than “dark,” the books become more adult in theme and content–though never “adult” in a sexual or pornographic sense. The much-talked about deaths of several “main characters” along the way merely add a dimension of tragedy, a reminder that Harry and his friends are struggling against forces that are in fact very dangerous and cruel.

The series is a tour de force as an extended novel and a bildungsroman. J.K. Rowling did a great job of tying up loose ends from the main plot and all the sub-plots. Her theme of Love comes to full fruition in the final book with Harry’s willingness to die for his loved ones (much like his mother’s similar willingness seventeen years before–which is arguably the causal factor of the entire storyline). Though it was terribly sad that characters like Tonks and Lupin and Dobby and Fred died–I was especially stricken when Colin Creevey, the youngster who irritatingly worshipped Harry in The Goblet of Fire, died after staying to fight, even though he was underage–the tragedy was balanced by the redemption of certain other characters, such as Severus Snape.

In a literal sense, the series ended as all fairy tales do with a “happily ever after.” To be sure, I wanted more detail about Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione, and their children…but really, just knowing that they were still friends, still happy together, and moving on in their lives was enough to satisfy me that the hurts of Voldemort had been healed. And that was the point, wasn’t it? Harry was always just looking to be normal and happy.

Morally, the stories are very clear. The children–especially the three main characters–constantly try to do right in the face of obstacles, which take the form of temptations to selfishness, direct threats on their life, and cruel adolescent other students. Though their efforts seem at times pointless or futile, in each book they (to some degree) succeed. More importantly, Rowling avoids the literary cliche of having a “chosen one” by explaining very carefully at the end of the sixth book that it is Harry’s choice to face up to Voldemort, rather than some pre-ordained destiny. The choice is forced on him (rather unfortunately) by Voldemort’s own obsession and misunderstanding–it is the effect of an evil person rather than a supernatural event that drives events in Harry’s life. It’s worth noting that for his part, Harry consistently chooses on his own to face the enemy. He never, in the end, avoids the confrontation or gives up. The vehicle of success, redemption, and goodness throughout the series lies not in magic or destiny but in moral choices.

I mentioned earlier that the theme of the series was Love. It runs through all these larger plot points and events as the source of all good relationships, and it drives the events because of the extraordinary friendship Harry shares with his friends. Their continual success against Voldemort is directly attributable to their combined efforts, which springs from their care for one another rather than merely shared purpose. And, in the end, it is only Harry’s Loving decision to give his life for his friends that enables him to finally defeat Voldemort. Literally and figuratively, Love conquers the death, fear, and despair that Harry and his friends must face throughout the series.

Rowling also deals heavily in the theme of redemption, which surfaces quietly in the early books–think how Sirius redeems his dark, evil family through his service and friendship to Harry–and becomes inescapable in the last. With the exception of Voldemort himself (and his particularly evil henchmen), every “bad” character to some measure redeems himself–Malfoy, a bully with a particular hatred of Harry, has the grace in the end to turn his back (however halfheartedly) on Voldemort, and to quietly allow Harry to save his life. Percy Weasley, who disowned his family to serve his own ambition, apologizes and returns to their side in the final battle. We learn that Dumbledore, perhaps the most staunchly good character of the entire book, was in fact tempted by Dark Magic early in his life, though he obviously repented early enough to discover Voldemort and set up his demise. But it is in Professor Snape’s story that we see the most redemption: the touching and powerful tale of a man who loved Lily so much that he could protect and aid her son even though that son looked like his father, the man Snape (perhaps) hated most in the world.

Although not revealed until later in the series, it becomes clear from Snape’s interactions with Dumbledore (seen in the memories he gave Harry immediately prior to his death) that much of his cruelty at Hogwarts was an act to lend verisimilitude to his allegiance with the Death Eaters–he shows his real colors when he corrects one of his portrait-henchmen at Hogwarts from using the equivalent of a racist epithet: “don’t use that word [“mudblood”]!” Also, he aids Harry throughout the series: early on by attempting to foil the curse of an unseen enemy during a quidditch game; then by trying to teach Harry the difficult art of Occlumency; and especially in the last book by sending his patronus to the wood to lead Harry to Gryffindor’s sword. Snape was a bitter, lonely young man, desperate to fit in and be liked, a tremendously competent wizard, and for all of these reasons sorely tempted by Dark Magic–a near perfect prospect for the Death Eaters. Yet he was redeemed by his love of Harry’s mother to the point of fighting thanklessly throughout the entire series to protect her son and defeat Voldemort.

The Harry Potter books are ultimately ennobling. They teach, entertainingly, that doing the right thing, sticking together with friends, and confronting evil when necessary will lead to a “happily ever after.” But the stories are much richer than a tale of good triumphing over evil. Each one is a cleverly constructed mystery novel, wherein the mundane details the characters’ lives (which are intriguing because we come to love the characters so much) conceal vital clues to the overarching problem of the novel, and many characters are not what they seem–an example of this is the case of Sirius Black in The Prisoner of Azkaban. Each book by itself is also a bildungsroman, like (as already mentioned) the entire series, in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione (and to a lesser extent Neville, Ginny, and Luna) grow up and become more complete persons. Indeed, part of their attraction to us as characters is their endearing and familiar adolescent struggle to like themselves, to gain friends, to fit in, and to succeed. Finally, by embedding the magical world in our own, Rowling has also added witty, amusing, and sometimes devastating satire.

Great literature addresses the great questions of humanity, such as why we exist, what we should do, and how we can be happy. Rowling has offered a compelling answer to these questions through the Harry Potter books. Along the way, she has crafted seven exciting stories that are introspective, funny, tragic, affirming, and ennobling. Her books, though perhaps not as profound, yet stand comparison to The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings. They are a valuable addition to the canon of English books, and they deserve better than a reduction to “children’s literature,” “young adult literature,” “fantasy literature,” “popular literature,” or any other kind of sub-category. They are simply Literature (with a capital “L”).

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.

The Power of Imagination

On a recent flight from Washington, DC to San Diego I had the fortune of watching the movie Bridge to Terabithia. It didn’t seem like fortune at the time, though. I was frankly disappointed that a more exciting movie wasn’t playing. Crammed into a small airline seat, forced to sit still for four hours or so, I wanted to watch something with action and drama and even romance, not some fantasy movie for children. But I didn’t feel like reading, so I plugged in my headphones and decided to give it a chance.

As a part of the programming, the airline included a review before the movie actually started. Interestingly, one reviewer remarked that he had the same misgivings as I did about the movie before he saw it, but ended up pleasantly surprised. He also mentioned that there were some significant dramatic themes, including a death. At the time, his comments didn’t really make me more excited to watch the movie myself, but I remembered them later.

I will probably spoil the movie for those of you who haven’t watched it, so if you really want to see it, move on to the next post. The main character, Jesse, is a young boy with four sisters. His family is struggling to get by, and his parents have too much on their mind to pay much attention to him. The movie is chiefly about his pre-adolescent struggles, and how he learns to deal with difficulties in life, which for him take the form of school bullies, a demanding and rigid father, and an annoying little sister (she actually loves him very much and because of that seems clingy to him).

The movie begins on the first day of sixth grade. Jesse has been practicing all summer so he can be the fastest kid in his class in the opening field day race. Unfortunately, he his mother insists that he wear his sister’s hand-me-down pink sneakers, for which classmates will tease him–but that’s pretty normal for Jesse, since his family can’t afford to buy many new things. During the race, he beats everybody in his class except a new girl named Leslie. What makes it worse for him is that she seems extremely interested in being his friend. He puts her off initially, partially bitter from the race he lost but also partially because she is new and different. Like him, she is an outcast–and the two eventually become friends.

Leslie discovers that Jesse has a passion for drawing. He keeps a notebook filled with drawings of imaginary creatures and events, though he is very shy about it. And with her encouragement, they begin to visit the woods behind their houses every day after school, developing in their imagination a fantasy world which they protect and rule. It is Leslie that instigates the imaginative part; Jesse is at first skeptical, reluctant, and derisive. Their world, Terabithia, is sophisticated: the children bring in the problems they face at school and at home and re-create them as evils threatening Terabithia, and likewise project their role and king and queen into their everyday lives, teaming up to get the better of bullies and help other students. Terabithia is a visible manifestation of the childrens’ friendship and a means by which they can romanticize their sufferings and make them meaningful. And while their sufferings might be considered trivial compared with adult problems, as children at the very beginning of puberty they feel disappointment, regret, and frustration with all the clarity of innocence. The movie clearly presents the childrens’ problems as a microcosm of our (the viewers’) own.

Later in the movie, Jesse is been invited to visit an art gallery with a teacher on whom he has a crush. For that reason, he doesn’t invite Leslie. When Jesse returns from the gallery he finds his parents sick with worry and senses something wrong: they tell him that Leslie went to the woods (Terabithia) by herself, and when crossing a swollen stream fell in and drowned. It is a terrible scene. Jesse can’t believe it at first and runs to her house, only to find ambulances and police cars and sympathizers already in attendance–including the teacher he was with that day. Wracked with guilt, he tells the teacher that they should have invited Leslie.

At this point in the story, I realized I had read the book before. It had been when I was very young, and I chiefly remember that I cried. It is a tragic story: Jesse senselessly loses his best friend; he blames himself because he didn’t invite her to the museum; he watches the exciting world they dreamed together and its positive effect on real life come crashing down about his ears. It was perhaps my first real encounter with grief. I sympathized with Jesse through the medium of the story–when he loses his temper with his little sister and pushes her to the ground, when he runs from his father into the woods, when he gets into a fight in school. I felt keenly the unlooked-for compassion of his parents (who struggle tell him that Leslie’s death wasn’t his fault) and his teachers, who tell him how lucky he was to have befriended Leslie and how special they thought she was. And, most importantly, I discovered that the gifts of others — in Jesse’s case, Terabithia — are the things that preserve their memory the best.

Bridge to Terabithia is far more than a simple children’s story. It is about dealing with suffering, death, and maturity. It reminds us that holding ideals with childlike clarity and abandonment is worthwhile. Jesse’s father, careworn as he is, recognizes this: “That girl gave you something very special, and to remember that is to keep her alive,” he tells Jesse. The value of a story like this recalls the great literary value of other “children’s stories,” such as the fables of Aesop and Hans Christian Anderson and the Chronicles of Narnia, which (like Bridge to Terabithia) continue to escape a more “mature” reading audience who decide they no time for childrens’ tales. And yet if joy, contentment, sorrow, pain, and frustration are the simplest emotions we feel, surely we feel them most keenly in our simplest frame of mind – when we are as little children. Even Jesus taught that we each should believe in Him and his message “as a little child.”

For if Terabithia is an ideal, so is the promise of Christianity. They are both firmly in the province of faith. And they both provide meaning to our daily trials and a goal to work toward in our daily labor. Keeping such an ideal before us despite the intrusion of dull or demanding tasks and obligations requires imagination–more specifically, it requires a simple, uncomplicated, unfettered imagination. It requires the imagination of a child. Such an imagination is the means by which we discern hope even amid our current suffering. That is what Bridge to Terabithia celebrates.

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.

Grief at the loss of a training aircraft

I am currently struggling through the first flying portion of Advanced Training. The stakes are higher here, since each student is destined for tactical aircraft. These aircraft operate in the most dynamic, threatening environment–they fight other aircraft and deliver ordnance through anti-aircraft systems. Consequently, the training is a bit more stringent. This usually takes the form of many long hours in the Simulators on my own, honing my navigation and weapons skills so I can perform them with greater precision and speed. The stress imposed on students has prompted us to to make many ironic statements regarding “glamor of naval aviation.” But flying is still fun, if dangerous. Recently, in fact, our Squadron was brutally reminded about how dangerous this job is. We suffered a serious, fatal mishap we suffered last Tuesday, on January 10 2006.

That day, Rocket 512 (the call sign of the flight) reported over the radio that they entered their low-level training route around 11 AM. They were never heard from again. After two days of waiting and searching, the wreckage of the aircraft was found in Northern Georgia. Of the four aviators aboard, there were no survivors. An investigation into the cause of the mishap is pending.

There was a memorial Mass this morning for the pilot. We do not use active-duty navy pilots; we use contract pilots employed by the Lockheed-Martin corporation, all of whom have a military aviation background. The chapel was full. I reflected there on how close we are in the squadron as a group. Though I personally knew both students and the instructor who died, I was neither friends nor even very familiar with any of them. The students were several classes ahead of me; I had only flown with the instructor once. Yet their absence is tangible. They no longer participate in the stories or jokes we exchange in the Ready Room, they no longer offer unsolicited advice to other students (as is the wont of all aviators), they will never again laugh at or make an ironic crack about the “glamor of naval aviation.” The instructor, particularly, I remember as being funny, friendly and sincere about teaching. He was enjoyable to fly with and made his students better at what they did. He was never cruel, difficult, or petty in the cockpit (as others were). He was a great asset to our squadron.

Perhaps more tragically, he left behind a wife and child. This is also true of one of the students; the other was recently engaged. Of course, this kind of risk was theirs to take and they took it without any illusion – as we all do. Military necessity requires us to ply our trade in dangerous regimes of flight, often at high speeds and low altitudes. Knowing this, we take especial care to identify risks and mitigate them. This is doubly true in a training command, because of “there is no glory in dying in a white [training] aircraft.” All of us officers in the command realize there is nothing to do except grieve, reflect, pick up, and continue with our mission. In fact, I will be doing just that tomorrow.

For this reason (in spite of the loss), things continue more or less as normal. No doubt as I immerse myself again in the task of flying, the grief will recede. But hopefully not the memory of these four aviators. There is a quotation on the wall of our Squadron bar says talks about how any aviator’s death is every aviator’s responsibility; perhaps if they had exchanged one more story about a hazard or they had invested a little more time in training they’d still be among us. That quote in turn reminds me of John Donne’s famous meditation:

“No man is an island, entire of itself / every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main / if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were / any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind / and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls / it tolls for thee.”

The grief I feel is real, despite not knowing any of the dead aviators very well. Their death reminds me of my own mortality, especially at the hand of flight; it is the loss of experience, from which I could benefit. Most importantly, they were comrades whose support I miss, even if I only received it tangentially. Moving on feels good, because grief hurts. But every so often I hear of an aviation mishap, and my mind returns to this one. I hope it makes me wiser.