Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers

Those who believe ritual and ceremony are meaningless have never watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers in Arlington Cemetery.  This article by Sarah Kaufman on the soldiers who perform this duty–the precision of their marching, the seams of their uniforms tailored to 1/64th of an inch, their shoes and gear obsessively polished–makes for a good Memorial Day meditation.  Read it all, but here are some excerpts:

Like so many great romantic moments in the arts, it begins with the tolling of a bell. The sound dies. Hushed anticipation. Finally, the soldier makes his entrance — no ordinary recruit, but the relief commander of the 3rd U.S. Infantry, taking part in the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

You could land an airplane on the flatness of his hat, balance teacups on his shoulders. He has been polished and honed to perfection, a man as monument, symbol and embodiment of order, respect and dignity.

Washington life swirls around him — crowds gather and disperse, jets climb into the clouds, the cemetery’s infernal lawn mowers roar. The weather may bake or freeze him — the high, marble mesa on which the tomb rests, at the top of a hill affording one of the loveliest views of the city, can feel like the hottest spot on Earth, even in May. It can also approach the coldest, as when blizzards covered the city two winters ago, and snow buried the plaza as fast as soldiers could shovel it. They replaced their shiny black shoes with combat boots. But the vigil and guard changes went on around the clock, as they do now and have since 1937.

The world doesn’t matter here, in this outdoor theater where the show always goes on. This guard posting is a marathon of purity, a spectacle of the finest abstraction and strictest minimalism, where precise, unthinking repetition blots out just about everything else.

The commander strides across the plaza, past the sarcophagus containing the remains of service members from World Wars I and II and Korea. (An unknown from the Vietnam War had joined them, but his remains were removed and returned to his family when DNA testing revealed his name.) He takes slow, measured steps, rolling his shoes on their outer edges so there’s no hint of a bounce in his body.

It’s the most luxurious legato. The man is a play of contrasts: loose in the knees, square in the chest, all business in the eyes. You know this even though you can’t actually see his eyes because of his sunglasses, so tightly fused to his skull they must be giving him a migraine. But there’s enough expression in his granite jaw to suggest that those hidden eyes are cold. Still, that delicious walk goes on, 18 steps, 20, 21 . . . clack! It’s brought up short, punctuated by a sharp clap of the heels. The metal plates on the inner edges of the shoes are one of many modifications to the basic dress-blues uniform.

The changing of the guard ceremony is like that, a precise, stop-start ballet performed by three men — commander, relief sentinel and the retiring sentinel— alternating between smooth and sharp, silence and staccato pops. With that same liquid gait, the relief sentinel makes his entrance, brandishing the most beautiful, sparkling M-14 you’ve ever seen. . . .

[Sgt. Benton Thames] recalls a time when several World War II veterans in wheelchairs were watching the ceremony. As Thames walked past them with that stately gait, buttons blazing, uniform pressed to a razor sharpness, behind his sunglasses he could see the old soldiers pushing down on their armrests, trying with all their trembling might to stand.

“Those that could saluted me as I passed,” Thames says, swinging his right hand up to his brow with a shy smile, a gesture both casual and elegant.

“That kind of got to me.”

A veteran once told Thames that he’d lost a buddy in World War II and that the body was never recovered. When he comes to the Tomb of the Unknowns, the veteran imagines that those remains belong to that guy — and this becomes the place where he can be mourned as if his name were cut in stone.

This is why the sentinel buffs his shoes, hollers for a good tucking-in, submits to having his creases measured to within a fraction of an inch. This is why he has seemingly shaved away every shred of his own individuality, his identity, for a task whose purpose is, at the heart of it, exquisitely tender. It is the physical expression of an intangible wish, the fulfillment of a promise.

Long past Memorial Day.

“All soldiers recognize that it represents them,” says Barrett, The Citadel professor. “Underlying the tomb is that if something happens to you and we can’t identify you or find you, that ceremony still honors you.

“We ask them, if necessary, to lay down their lives,” he continues, his voice faltering with emotion, for he was once a soldier. “This is the corollary: They will not be forgotten.”

via At Tomb of the Unknowns, a ritual of remembrance – The Washington Post.

Absolute ethics vs. Pragmatism

If postmodernists are right in saying that there are no absolutes of truth or morality, how can they function?  The answer, according to both the masses and philosophers such as Richard Rorty, is pragmatism.  Just do what “works.”  Don’t worry about what is true or what is good, just pursue your practical agenda.

Now pragmatism is a philosophy, an ideology, and a worldview that is utterly opposed to Christianity.  And yet many Christians adopt it unthinkingly, determining the way they worship and the things they teach according to the tenets of pragmatism.  (We want to get more people to join our churches, so let’s eliminate the obstacles to that, whether in practice or theology.)

It’s interesting to see how people who perceive a moral issue nevertheless appeal to pragmatism to make a better case.   For example, in the debates about torture, most of those who reject the practice do so on moral grounds but then make a pragmatic claim:  Torture doesn’t work anyway!

Conversely, many people who do hold to moral absolutes often revert to pragmatism.  Yes, torture may be wrong in principle, but if we could save a thousand lives by torturing one person, it would be worth it.  (This is actually an example of Enlightenment-era utilitarianism, which sought to evade Biblical absolutes and to justify the abuses of the Industrial Revolution by promoting “the greater good for the greater number.”)

Now it appears that torture actually DOES work.  Not by crudely getting someone to tell the truth to make the pain stop–which, of course, would encourage saying ANYTHING–but by a sophisticated process of psychological manipulation.

M. Gregg Bloche, a physician and lawyer, faces up to the fact that his fellow liberals need to be willing to oppose torture on moral grounds even though it works pragmatically.  A sample:

Torture, liberals like me often insist, isn’t just immoral, it’s ineffective. We like this proposition because it portrays us as protectors of the nation, not wusses willing to risk American lives to protect terrorists. And we love to quote seasoned interrogators’ assurances that building rapport with the bad guys will get them to talk. . . .

The idea that waterboarding and other abuses may have been effective in getting information from detainees is repellant to many, including me. It’s contrary to the meme many have embraced: that torture doesn’t work because people being abused to the breaking point will say anything to get the brutality to stop — anything they think their accusers want to hear.

But this position is at odds with some behavioral science, I’ve learned. The architects of enhanced interrogation are doctors who built on a still-classified, research-based model that suggests how abuse can indeed work.

I’ve examined the science, studied the available paper trail and interviewed key actors, including several who helped develop the enhanced interrogation program and who haven’t spoken publicly before. This inquiry has made it possible to piece together the model that undergirds enhanced interrogation.

This model holds that harsh methods can’t, by themselves, force terrorists to tell the truth. Brute force, it suggests, stiffens resistance. Rather, the role of abuse is to induce hopelessness and despair. That’s what sleep deprivation, stress positions and prolonged isolation were designed to do. Small gestures of contempt — facial slaps and frequent insults — drive home the message of futility. Even the rough stuff, such as “walling” and waterboarding, is meant to dispirit, not to coerce.

Once a sense of hopelessness is instilled, the model holds, interrogators can shape behavior through small rewards. Bathroom breaks, reprieves from foul-tasting food and even the occasional kind word can coax broken men to comply with their abusers’ expectations.

Certainly, interrogators using this approach have obtained false confessions. Chinese interrogators did so intentionally, for propaganda purposes, with American prisoners during the Korean War. McCain and other critics of “torture-lite” cite this precedent to argue that it can’t yield reliable information. But the same psychological sequence — induction of hopelessness, followed by rewards to shape compliance — can be used to get terrorism suspects to tell the truth, or so the architects of enhanced interrogation hypothesize.

Critical to this model is the ability to assess suspects’ truthfulness in real time. To this end, CIA interrogators stressed speedy integration of intelligence from all sources. The idea was to frame questions to detect falsehoods; interrogators could then reward honesty and punish deceit.

via Torture-lite: It’s wrong, and it might work – The Washington Post.

So can those of you who oppose torture AND those of you who believe it justified make your case WITHOUT referring to pragmatic arguments?

Will technology replace schools?

Stephen Pearstein profiles Sal Kahn, who teaches math via YouTube videos, making the case that online technology may soon make traditional schools obsolete:

If education moves to a teaching model in which students learn through online tutorials, exercises and evaluations created by a handful of the best educators in the world, then how many teachers will we need preparing lesson plans and delivering lectures and grading quizzes and tests? Surely we’ll need some for one-on-one tutoring, or to run small group discussions, or teach things that can’t or shouldn’t be taught online. Despite assurances to the contrary, however, there’s likely to be fewer than we have now — fewer but better-paid with more interesting jobs — just as has happened in nearly every other industry that has gone through a similar transformation.

The disruption doesn’t stop there. If students are allowed to progress through each subject at their own pace, they won’t be second-graders or sixth-graders any longer, since at any time they are likely to be at different grades in different subjects. Indeed, the whole notion of a 45-minute “class,” or the six-hour “school day,” or even the August through June school “calendar” — the entire framework of the educational experience — will become somewhat irrelevant. And as Khan loves to point out, grading will suddenly become simple: Everyone gets an A in every course, with the only question being how long it takes each student to earn it.

Given these implications, you can understand why the education establishment has been in no hurry to embrace a digital future. The battles over standardized testing and adoption of common national standards were just the warm-up. Now that the opposition to them has been largely overcome, capital and creative talent will pour in to develop both the hardware and the software of the new education technology.

Over the next decade, look for teaching to be transformed from an art into something much closer to a science, look for learning to become highly individualized, and look for education to go from being a cottage industry to one that takes full advantage of the economies of scale and scope. And as in every other industry, look for quality to go up and cost to go down.

via Steven Pearlstein: Mark them tardy to the revolution – The Washington Post.

The corollary is that schools would be replaced with homeschooling!  But don’t working parents want someplace to park their kids for the day?  That reason alone will is likely to keep schools alive, even after they are obsolete.

I do think that human-to-human teaching is much superior to mechanical instruction, but some online teaching–such as  my daughter’s Latin classes for homeschoolers are real time, with genuine teacher-to-student and student-to-student interaction–whereas many of our progressive schools have become mechanistic and dehumanizing.

What do you think about this?  What could it mean, say, for Christian and parochial schools?

HT:  Jackie

Updating myself at Redeemed Reader

J. B. Cheaney writes for World and for children.  With fellow children’s lit author Emily Whitten, she has a blog entitled  Redeemed Reader | Kids books. Culture. Christ.  They discuss kiddy-lit, yes, but also lots of other things, from homeschooling to our current cultural condition.  Anyway, they did an interview with me, which they are posting in two parts.  In addition to discussing classical education and vocation,  I take the occasion to update some of what I wrote in my books Reading Between the Lines and Postmodern Times.

Homosexuality & abusing priests

A $2 million study of the priest child abuse scandal, paid for in part by the Roman Catholic Church,  takes the politically-correct position that homosexuality had nothing to do with it.  Louie Verrecchio, himself a Catholic, disagrees, based on the report’s own data:

On May 18, researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice released their long-awaited final report, “Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010.”

The research team, led by Karen Terry, Ph.D., gathered an impressive amount of information from which they drew a number of conclusions; the most unsettling of which is the claim that homosexuality is unrelated to the abuse (particularly of adolescent males, the primary victims in the crisis.)

Though 81 percent of the victims were post-pubescent males, researchers downplayed the homosexual connection by suggesting that this simply reflects the fact that offenders had greater access to boys. The report also proposes the possibility that, “Although the victims of priests were most often male, thus defining the acts as homosexual, the priest did not at any time recognize his identity as homosexual.”

A less politically correct conclusion, it would seem, is to acknowledge that the offending clerics were perhaps unwilling to take “ownership” of their struggle with homosexuality. In any event, this line of argument appears to be little more than a red herring.

According to Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, a consultant to the Vatican Congregation for Clergy and a leading expert on clerical sex abuse, how an abuser may “recognize” himself is not entirely relevant; rather, the homosexual acts alone testify to “deep seated” homosexuality.

“We are identified by our behavior,” Dr. Fitzgibbons said in a recent telephone interview. “The attempt to distance the homosexual acts in question from a personal struggle against SSA (Same Sex Attraction) on the part of the abuser is inconsistent with clinical data.”

Information found in the report itself also strongly suggests that the abuse is directly related to homosexuality. For instance: “This excuse (that the victim initiated physical intimacy) was particularly common for priests who were accused of abusing adolescents, who referred to the abuse as a ‘relationship.’”

Does this scenario, in which an adult male imagines that he is involved in a sexually active consenting “relationship” with an adolescent boy, describe a heterosexual crime of convenience? So determined to deny the obvious, the John Jay researchers are at pains to have you believe that it does.

The report also reveals that abusers often “groomed” their victims over a period of time prior to the onset of abuse; where grooming is defined as “a premeditated behavior intended to manipulate the potential victim into complying.”

This information effectively undermines the “crime of convenience” explanation for the preponderance of adolescent male victims. It also clearly indicates a direct connection to homosexuality, but the John Jay researchers resolutely insist otherwise claiming that the abusers were simply men who “appear to have had certain vulnerabilities to commit abuse (for example, emotional congruence with children or adolescents), experienced increased stressors from work (for example, having recently received more responsibilities, such as becoming a pastor), and had opportunities to abuse (for example, unguarded access to minors).” 

via John Jay Study: A $2 million exercise in political correctness :: Catholic News Agency (CNA).

The abusers had “vulnerabilities to commit abuse”?  They were vulnerable?  So  they were the victims?

HT:  David Mills

Nature & Grace in “The Tree of Life”

The movie that took the top prize at Cannes is entitled The Tree of Life.  Most critics laud the beauty of its scenes from nature but were puzzled by it all.  But Rev. Robert Barron, priest and theology professor at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, sees the Book of Job–which is directly referenced in the film–as the key.  His review in the Chicago Tribune is worth reading for his own reflections on that Book and on the way it resolves the Problem of Evil:

What could possibly tie together the following scenes: a flock of birds cavorting in breathtakingly harmonious patterns, the meeting of flowing lava and crashing waves, a larger dinosaur dominating a smaller one, a young boy throwing a baseball through a window just because he is forbidden to do so, a depressed middle-aged man sitting in a coldly modernistic office building, and a meteor crashing into the primordial earth?

If I am at all correct in my reading of Terrence Malick’s meditative film, “The Tree of Life,” in which those and many other seemingly disparate scenes occur, what ties them together is that they are all ingredient in the plan and purpose of God. I realize how pretentious that can sound, but this is a filmmaker (and a film) with very grand ambitions indeed.

The movie opens with a quotation from the book of Job: “where were you when I founded the earth…while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38: 4,7)?

These are some of the first lines of the magnificent speech that God delivers to Job, the righteous man who had been beset with every imaginable suffering and who had challenged God to explain himself.

Malick’s film opens with a couple (played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), who have been informed that their 19 year old son has died and who are experiencing a Job-like confusion and indignation: how could God have done this to them and to their son?

God’s answer to Job is puzzling, for it does not directly address the matter at hand; instead, it unfolds as a grand tour of the cosmos, in all of its strangeness, beauty, and complexity, culminating with a detailed description of the virtues of Leviathan (probably a whale) and Behemoth (perhaps a hippopotamus).

Malick’s film mimics the speech of God in the measure that it takes us away from the suffering couple to a visually stunning sequence of scenes depicting dynamics within the cosmos, from the birth of stars and the splitting of cells to the demise of the dinosaurs and the ballet-like movements of a jellyfish swimming toward the surface of the ocean.

The author of the book of Job and Terrence Malick both are suggesting that the “answer” to this most painful and searching of questions is found through the widest possible broadening of one’s perspective, so as to see what God is up to everywhere in his creation.

On Malick’s telling, the universe—from its primordial beginnings to now—is marked by a play of two forces, nature and grace. Nature is strong, conflictual, hard-edged, and violent; whereas grace is gentle, loving, and forgiving. Both are constantly in play, constantly in tension with one another, and somehow both are part of God’s design.

One of the most striking images in the film–the meeting of lava and ocean wave that I mentioned above—is a particularly apt symbol of the way that nature and grace come together to produce something beautiful.

Having made his literally “cosmic” point, Malick sharpens his focus and returns in flashback to the young couple now just beginning their family. The father, played with convincing understatement by Pitt, is a decent man who loves his children, but he is, first and foremost, a disciplinarian, eager to make his boys tough and self-reliant. He is the embodiment of the principle of nature.

The mother, delicately evoked by Chastain, is the avatar of grace. She is playful with her children, exuberant, lively, sensitive, quick to forgive.

It would be quite wrong, I think, to read them simply as evil and good, respectively. Both parents awaken something positive and negative in their children; each calls out to the other for completion. . . .

What I find particularly fascinating—and it brings us to the theological heart of the film—is that both nature and grace are grounded in God and are part of his providential design. The brutal and the gentle; the violent and the peaceful; the competitive and the cooperative come together in a way that produces the rough order that we see in the cosmos and in human affairs. Thomas Aquinas, very much influenced by the book of Job, said that God is a “wise provider” who permits certain evils in order to bring about a greater good in the totality of his creation, and I think Terrence Malick is making much the same point in “Tree of Life.”

Perhaps just a word in closing about the title. In the third chapter of Genesis, we hear that Adam and Eve, after having eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, were expelled from the Garden of Eden and denied access to the Tree of Life.

What prevented them from participating in life, in other words, was the attempt to gain a knowledge of the play of good and evil that belongs to God alone. Grasping at perfect knowledge, they fell.

A basic message of the Bible is that, in the play of good and evil, in the tension between nature and grace, God is up to something beautiful, though we are unable to grasp it totally. The way to life, therefore, is a path of surrender and acceptance. I think that “Tree of Life” is communicating this same difficult but vital lesson.

via The Seeker: Tree of Life glorifies God.

This sounds like a movie (which has not yet been broadly released) that is more of a Christian work of art than the typical problem+conversion+happy ending film that generally defines the genre.   The nature/grace dichotomy, which Thomists are so fond of, finds an interesting application here.   Missing, though, is the true high point of Job:  “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”


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