Memorial Day in America, 2016

We needed the occasion, to remember in America, and with our friends abroad, what greatness is.

We needed it to celebrate honor, duty, service and sacrifice in such a year as this. It fell just about halfway through this contentious, dishonorable, politically charged and pivotal election year, so it would be nice if it were more of an opportunity to re-ground ourselves in what we just celebrated, than to let the day go by as a wonderful recall of noble heroism embodied in countless acts of virtue, of ‘grace under pressure’, impulsively carried out to serve or save another without hesitation or concern that it may be a final act in the life of that hero, who only thought they were doing the right thing.

‘The right thing’ has become a political calculus these days, ‘right’ being as redefined as so many other terms in our shared social life, as if there were no moral compass and objective natural law of what we ought to do and what we can’t not know, apart from the dictates of the culture of relativism as manifested in media, law and politics.

Everywhere I turned and looked on Memorial Day weekend seemed more filled than ever with witnesses to greatness in acts of goodness, displays of loving gratitude, celebrations of appreciation for the ultimate act of service for a single other person, groups of others, or countless populations of others, sometimes in a split-second decision to take that action, out of the impulse to protect and to save.

Here are two examples.

On my radio program, I had the opportunity to feature three individuals in two wars. Adam Makos told me about the story of Tom Hudner and Jesse Brown, two great friends and Navy pilots in the Korean War, a story that fills the pages of Makos’ book Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship and Sacrifice.

“On December 4th, 1950, the Korean War had turned very dire. We had 10,000 U.S. Marines surrounded by 100,000 Chinese communist troops at a place called the Chosin Reservoir, way up in northern North Korea. Men like Tom and Jesse would fly [from their nearby naval carrier ships] to give air support to the Marines. They would drop bombs and strafe, and that’s when Jesse Brown was shot down. He was hit by a bullet from the ground, from a Chinese soldier, and he crash-landed in the only place he could — on the side of a North Korean mountain.”

Brown’s wingman, Tom Hudner, witnessed what happened, and then saw smoke rising from the nose of Jesse’s plane, which lay 13 miles behind enemy lines. Hudner said, “I’m going in.” All the other pilots remained silent.

Makos continued, “Tom knew his friend was about to die, and he was willing to give his own life to try to change that. With his wheels up, Tom circled around and came to a skidding, screeching stop alongside of Jesse’s plane. Tom got out into that deep snow and set out to try to save his friend’s life. It had never happened before; it has never happened since.”

Among the many extraordinary lessons in this story is the transcendent nature of friendship, human dignity and faith. Discrimination in society over race, religion, background and economic class falls away in war, the great and terrible equalizer. It is life lived at its absolute essence, informed by a powerful transcendent belief, that emerges in all the accounts of war heroes.

That was personified in the service and witness of Fr. Vincent Capodanno, Marine Chaplain who served in the Vietnam War and lost his life in the most extraordinary acts of ministering to dying men during a firefight that exposed him to mortal danger. I featured his story on that Memorial Day program as well, but it barely scratched the surface of a profoundly deep belief in and dedication to the care of others, body and soul, who are in front of you in whatever circumstances you’re in, and theses were dire.

The whole account is in The Grunt Padre, the fuller account of Fr. Capodanno’s service and sacrifice in detail, during his time in Vietnam 1966-1967. Christ Stefanick does a good job summarizing it in this video.

Some snips:

He knew that where the fighting was thickest, is where a chaplain might be needed the most.

One marine said

“He just gave me a look like ‘don’t worry, it’s going to be okay’.” Then the gas started getting lobbed, and Fr. Capodanno refused to take the Marine’s gas mask. “He said ‘no, you need it more than I do’. At that moment, he was just gone from my view.”

A marine was hit with shrapnel. When Fr. Capdanno got to him, “a bubble of peace descended around him. All he heard was his voice: ‘God is with us all this day. Someone will be here soon to help you.’ Fr. Capodanno was always able to see the crisis of the moment from an eternal perspective…Capodanno didn’t survive that day. He was running to minister to a medic who was shot, just yards from the machine gunner who had targeted him. He was shot 27 times in the back. He died in a field in Vietnam with that medic.

The excerpt from The Grunt Padre about that final assault is profound. It’s what Corporal Ray Harton recalls in a powerful testimony of Fr. Capodanno’s final minutes. Harton was hit repeatedly in the battle after “the carnage started”.

I don’t know how long I lay there. I found myself getting weaker and could see the North Vietnamese soldiers moving in on us…I thought everyone else was dead. I prayed to God, for I knew I was bleeding to death…I expected a bullet or bayonet at any moment. As I closed my eyes, someone touched me. When I opened my eyes, he looked directly at me. It was Father Capodanno. Everything got still: no noise, no firing, no screaming. A peace came over me that is unexplainable to this day. In a quiet and calm voice, he cupped the back of my head and said, “Stay quiet, Marine. You will be OK. Someone will be here to help you soon. God is with us all this day.”

As Stefanick notes, Fr. Capodanno didn’t survive the day. But his service and witness are beyond extraordinary.

And so were those told by others throughout the Memorial Day weekend, in so many ways and places, from the Mall of Washington events honoring service members in different wars, to tributes published and broadcast in so many outlets. Many note that it’s a memorial held beyond US borders.

Like this one in Cambridge, England.

And this one in France.

Taking it all in, allowing ourselves to be filled with gratitude for so many individuals who so nobly gave everything they had for another human being, and inspiration that these countless stories are being continued in so many ways today in battles to save endangered populations from extinction, villages and towns and refugee camps from assault and violence, and the most vulnerable human beings from enslavement, trafficking, torture and death, we should be filled with hope.

And that each of us has the power of greatness within us to serve the common good, and the responsibility to do what’s in our reach each day, without looking for a savior in politics. The sooner we do, the less we’ll believe that making America great, or ‘getting’ hope and change, relies on a politician or someone running for political office.

It relies on each and all of us.

ISIL intended to send a personal message to the US

It worked, though maybe not as that murderous gang expected.

They wanted to cower the US into backing off the already limited air strikes, humanitarian relief drops and rescue missions of refugees from their brutality. Did the horror of beheading a captive American journalist intimidate the US into backing off those strikes, as intended? Did the president end his vacation and return to the White House to monitor all operations going forward? No. No to both questions.

First, the president’s press conference on the state of affairs after this intimidation tactic.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama addressed the nation regarding the brutal slaying of an American journalist by Islamic State militants. After conducting that gruesome deed, James Wright Foley’s assassin warned the president that his organization planned to kill yet another American unless the West surrenders Iraq and Syria to the Islamic State’s inhuman designs.

Many of the words Obama deployed in his rhetorical front in the war against ISIS were quite nice and even refreshingly blunt. “No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day,” Obama said after a brief list of the atrocities committed by ISIS militants. “ISIL has no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt.”

“People like this ultimately fail,” the president added. “They fail because the future is won by those who build and not destroy.”

History is, indeed, replete with examples of barbaric forces bent on delivering the world back into darkness. Some have failed. Some did not. Those that did fail did so because they were resisted by the armies of civilization. None of history’s dark crusades ever failed in a vacuum.

That’s a critical point. They don’t just ‘fail’. They are defeated.

Obama expressed how “heartbroken” he was at the murder of an American, and he pledged to “extract this cancer so that it does not spread.” But this metastatic tumor has already been allowed to spread. And, even in a fashion that maintained a sufficient level of operational secrecy, the president failed to inform the American people how he planned to excise it…

Where was the status update on the ongoing airstrikes against ISIS positions in the north of Iraq which, judging only from press accounts, appear to be relatively effective? Why did the president fail to address rumors that his administration was aware of the threats to Foley’s life prior to his execution, or that unconfirmed reports have suggested that his killer may have been a former Guantanamo detainee?

For that matter, why did the president not address the fact that a significant number of westerners are apparently fighting alongside ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and Foley’s executioner may have been one of these western jihadists? It is, again, perfectly understandable for the president to not want to get ahead of the facts of this still developing event, but Obama is set to chair as United Nations Security Council meeting in September which is focused entirely on that very threat. He has yet to publicly address this forthcoming UNSC meeting, and this incident would have been a perfect time to broach that subject.

Instead, he leaves it up to his surrogates and the media to inform the public about how this war is being prosecuted. The latest development, breaking just minutes after Obama spoke, is an apparent proposal administration officials are considering to send 300 additional troops to Iraq. Even members of Obama’s own party are now strongly suggesting that the president come to Congress with a request to legally authorize this application of force in Iraq. When does the president plan to speak honestly about the scope of American involvement in the Middle East?

British Prime Minister David Cameron cut short his vacation to return to the urgent matters facing the West and the world with this extremist threat. He called the beheading of American journalist James Foley “shocking and depraved”, giving voice to the deeply rooted reactions of Westerners.

Look, this will all get analyzed and detailed to some extend in the days to come. I’m out of contact for the next couple of days myself, not for vacation but for personal matters. But an initial response must be swift and clear and strong. I hate that it ‘s always a ‘response’ these days, instead of a nation standing for freedom and protection and justice taking the lead in pro-actively leading the way on what the United Nations Charter called the ‘duty to protect.’

So for now, here are a couple of clear pieces of reporting and commentary that directly speak to what we’re confronting in Iraq.

Tod Worner was on my radio program the other day bringing his intellectual heft to the table about what we’re dealing with. And that was while we were dealing with inhumane atrocities unimaginable to the civilized mind, and before the video recorded beheading of an American journalist. Here’s an upshot.

ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq & Syria, or the Islamic State in Iraq & the Levant (ISIL), or simply the Islamic State – hereafter called ISIS] is the most ruthless, brazen jihadist army the world may have ever seen. For further description, please see my previous posts here, here, and here. Khaled Sharrouf found ISIS compelling enough to leave Australia with his family to arrive in Syria and partake in particularly vicious bloodletting in the name of jihad and the cause of re-establishing the worldwide Islamic Caliphate. With a large cache of money and weaponry at their disposal, ISIS has unleashed a lightning speed butchery in Iraq and Syria unprecedented in scope, fury, and success (with the closest comparison being the 1940-41 National Socialist onslaught in Western Europe and against the Soviet Union). And their achievements are difficult to ignore.

Well over one million refugees have fled their homes and cities fearing certain death if they refused conversion to Islam. Thousands have been tortured, raped and murdered via gruesome means including beheadings, crucifixions, stonings and mass shootings. The culture being erected includes women and girls sold into sex slavery, female genital mutilation, and draconian rules outlawing tobacco, alcohol, and revealing attire. Absolute and fierce adherence to ISIS’ vision of Islam is the unbending law and a hair’s deviation earns pitiless punishment. And this is all being enacted by a group that is awash with money, oil reserves, territory, weapons and a rabid following.

Now the point of this post is not simply to reiterate the unparalleled viciousness unfolding before our eyes day after bloody day in Iraq and Syria – though this, unquestionably, would be reason enough. Rather it is to call attention to a crisis that is being forgotten or, more likely, conveniently ignored: The Crisis of Moral Relativism in the face of Naked Evil…

In the post-modern world, we have been led to believe that truth is relative to person, place, time and culture. This notion has led many to approach different faiths, cultures, nations and people with the exalted virtues of open-mindedness and tolerance…

With all relative and nothing absolute, there is no standard. There is no right or wrong, fair or unfair, good or evil – just gentlemanly differences of opinion. But in the end, absent a guide such as right, wrong, fair, unfair…what will guide the direction a person, a culture, or a society goes in? Power. So the unholy alliance in a morally relative world is between aggressive entities ruthlessly executing their will and their passive observers falling all over themselves asking “Who are we to judge?”….

Perhaps, then, we can agree on something. Perhaps we can agree that what ISIS is doing is…wrong? And is it possible, just possible, that we may find ourselves naming their untethered sadism…evil? You see, once we have moved from a cozy, theoretical, dispassionate, anthropologic interest in a human affair to a true understanding of what is happening, we find ourselves stirred by a deeper sense of inviolable (perhaps, even sacred) human dignity and justice. We have moved from the realm where all truth and morality is relative…to the realm where there is an absolute standard of truth and morality (where human life is dignified, ought to be respected and the violation of this dignity demands justice be served).

By calling the actions of ISIS unacceptable, we have shattered relativism for all time. Because we have invoked an absolute standard: Right and Wrong. How novel that we live in a world where this should be controversial? As Winston Churchill once said,

“It is an important thing to diagnose the evil…”

Yes. Indeed.

But first we must believe in evil.

And that’s where the other piece comes in, from the engaged and exercised and vocal and exquisitely spot on Elizabeth Scalia, who feels the pain and conveys it in a way we can feel.

Look at how she honored the life and death of James Foley, and his witness to the ‘subversive freedom of prayer‘.

A great deal has been written about the late James Foley, his beheading at the hands of a barbarous Islamic State: the moving response from this band of Syrians, the Jesuit education which, along with the example of his family kept him grounded in his faith; his own words on the power of prayer, written in previous captivity.

The story is tragic and infuriating — every bit as nation-stirring as the similar murder of Daniel Pearl, all those years ago, when bloody “war on terror” was still in its official infancy, though in truth, we have been trailing these tears and stains for many decades, now.

But I keep coming back to Foley’s own words on prayer, and how it sustained him:

It showed tremendous heart and was just a glimpse of the efforts and prayers people were pouring forth. If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn’t make sense, but faith did.

It’s something we’ve talked about a lot on this blog, but it bears repeating: prayer is a subversive means of freedom, at once consoling, engaging and efficacious throughout time and space. It has power, and that power holds, when everything else falls apart.

ISIL got the attention of the US and the Western World. That’s what it wanted. What comes next, God willing, is beyond their reach and grasp.