The Ribbon of War

On Memorializing Warfare’s Fallen Warriors

Many people have died in fulfillment of the oath they took according to the Constitution of the United States, which remained unchanged from 1789 to 1950, when it underwent a slight revision, but has remained materially the same for 227 years: namely to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic and to obey the orders of the President of the United States. Thus many would rather die than swear falsely this oath.

Glancing through the history of the United States, World War II serves as the emblem of that loyalty, wherein hundreds of thousands perished defending the Constitution from what was perceived to be an existential threat on two fronts: from Asia and from Europe. I equivocate because I sit in the luxury of being removed two generations from that perceived threat; moreover, the question is before us today, given the intricacies of international relations: can there even be such an existential threat?

Well, was there ever such an existential threat to the Constitution of the United States? Let’s say yes there was, and World War II is it. I hearken to the opening dialogue of the wonderful HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which is a dramatization of interviews conducted first by historian Stephen Ambrose, drawing from a few of his books, and supplemented by interviews conducted by the producers of the TV series.

“Get your uniforms,” someone shouts in a marketplace.

“Why?”

“America is in a war with Japan.”

And so it began. I am struck by this introduction: America’s population was largely surprised by the onset of war. Studying the decade leading up to Pearl Harbor, it seems obvious to me that the United States was basically inviting itself into a historic conflagration just by sheer policy moves made by a cynical government overseen by the architect of the New Deal and the packer of the Supreme Court, FDR, who, despite his pernicious ways, remained popular enough that he was in his third term as president, inviting, as I say, foreign attack. How could those who were living in that time be surprised?

Well, some were, and some weren’t. Roosevelt wasn’t that popular, and his critics were quick to point out, especially as the Pacific theater quickly turned hopeless, that this was Roosevelt’s War, that he needed it to hide his nefarious, anti-American, pro-Socialism, domestic policies, among which critics was ensconced the hero George S. Patton, named by Carlo d’Este as A Genius For War, to whom we will return momentarily.

In the meantime, our national identity given by WWII pours from the bloody victories earned at Iwo Jima, and, in particular, in the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge, which was won by the Battered Bastards of Bastogne, bloodied but unbowed. In oft-depicted scenes, we find our heroes throwing back the fierce German Wehrmacht without proper food, clothes, shoes, ammunition, weapons, or even winter coats, withstanding one of the coldest Decembers on record without the luxury of a mere campfire.

When we celebrate these heroes, for surely they were, we see them fighting against all hope, victorious by sheer American grit and fortitude, as Ambrose puts it, pitting the ideals of American freedom against the tyranny of fascism, and we won.

But why were our heroes essentially naked? Couldn’t we have won more easily with our vast resources producing fully, protected by two gigantic oceans? Why did they have to suffer, and why for so long?

Let me introduce to you one Major General John C. H. Lee, the commander of the supply army for the European Theater, disdainfully called “Jesus Christ Himself,” a man notorious for seeking the pleasures of conquest and aggrandizing all things earthly unto himself. In September of 1944, when he should have been supplying the combat armies with winter materiel, he was instead shipping tons of prefabricated housing for his officers and men, whose job it was to acquire for themselves, kicking up a share through the officers to their commander.

In other words, there was an entire army of thieves, scoundrels, and crooks given solely to creating a black market, siphoning off anything of value for their own enrichment, and at the expense of 1) the American laborer and 2) their comrades-at-arms holding the line. I repeat: an entire army of American soldiers were happy denizens of a rear-echelon empire of thievery.

Why were the 101st and the 82nd divisions rushed to Bastogne in the first place? Another army of American soldiers was in panicked retreat, wild-eyed with fear, throwing down their arms and ammunition in a bid to escape the horrors of warfare as quickly as possible. I repeat: an entire army of American soldiers was in retreat.

Patton’s rescue of the Battered Bastards of Bastogne (which has never been acknowledged as necessary by those battered bastards) is another tale of heroism. The genius for war saw that his superiors were far too complacent with the progress of war, and that their bungling of the battlefield, for political reasons, was percolating toward a sudden reversal of fortune; indeed, fortune had allowed the Allies to progress in spite of many terrible decisions, not the least of which was removing Patton from command.

The German Army never believed for one second that Eisenhower had removed Patton, the greatest general of the entire war, for the misdemeanor of slapping a soldier, considering the entire media storm to have been manufactured as a deceptive ploy. In fact, the political sensitivities of the Allies had prevailed against Patton, and the Allied advance stalled, festered, and nearly broke under the German counteroffensive.

Nevertheless, Patton, singular among the entire European command, had foreseen the counteroffensive, almost to the day and place; not only that, but he had prepared his army for it, from the top brass all the way to the common foot soldier. This “pivot,” as it is called, disengaging from the enemy on one front, marching without ceasing for forty-eight hours, and re-engaging the enemy on another front, is a marvel of warfare.

It was a few men, then, under the duress of a fanatical enemy and also in defiance of their own bureaucracy, who won the war. I’m sure there are many veterans of that war, and many fallen comrades, who fought ably and heroically, sandwiched between General J. C. H. Lee and the Battered Bastards of Bastogne who welcomed George S. Patton’s 3rd Army to the party, but without the few, the many would have foundered and failed.


Let’s say we are surprised by the perception of an existential threat in the near future. Looking around at our culture, which seems dangerously preoccupied with its genitalia and the free stuff from the government to stimulate the same, it might be difficult to believe that we would even stop gazing at our crotches long enough to raise an army for the battle. Ah, it is not the many who prevail, but the few, who carry the many, and the many thank them for preserving them in spite of thievery and onanism and cowardice.

You’ve met my friend Rafe in previous posts. He’s a real person, and he really is my friend, whom I consider to be a thoughtful eccentric, of no particular philosophy or commonly held worldview. He’s the youngest of four brothers, and he’s my age, so he won’t be one of the few of those thoughtful warriors, but a decade or two ago he would have been. He has three sons of his own, chips off the old block (with normal names), but with the same ideals, and, I think, a willingness to spearhead an assault to preserve the ideals of freedom for us who might not be so willing, and, if willing, less able.

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Ever vigilant, Rafe calls them in. #turkeyhunting

I mentioned to Adam Gurri recently that Rafe has no air-conditioning in his home, and he heats his home with a wood-burning stove. And look: while Western New York might seem rural to many of you, it’s not rural. His house is situated in the country between Rochester and Buffalo, and he has five neighbors within a literal stone’s throw of his front door. Every year he has an argument with his one neighbor about whether he can track a wounded deer onto his fields, which his neighbor refuses to grant, illegally harvesting, then, the deer which Rafe shot. I digress. But it’s so un-neighborly…And in God’s America!

Anyway, I mentioned to Adam Gurri that Rafe has no AC and heats his home with a wood-burning stove, and we both thought it was hilarious that anyone would want to live like that, what with affordable thermostat-controlled environments and all.

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Rafe heats his home with a wood-burning stove because he likes it, not because he’s some backwater oaf. The house, nevertheless, is unevenly heated, but such actuality creates a pattern of living in which his family thrives. And he’s not entirely brutish: he recently bought an air-conditioner, one of those interior wall-mounted doohickeys, under which we sat all day this past Sunday while Western New York roasted in temperatures rising to almost 90° (the agony!). Later on, we went outside and did some firearm target practice.

We will look to such people, in the case of a surprise existential crisis, people who are intelligent, well-read, thoughtful, morally stable, and violent. People like Rafe are like me in that they are both pessimistic about the ability of society to preserve itself and aware of the caprice of the ribbon of war. They are more than me in that they will prefer to die in spite of its caprice, hoping.

Frames

‘Now don’t you see the difference? It wasn’t anything but a WIND reef. The wind does that.’

‘So I see. But it is exactly like a bluff reef. How am I ever going to tell them apart?’

‘I can’t tell you. It is an instinct. By and by you will just naturally KNOW one from the other, but you never will be able to explain why or how you know them apart’

It turned out to be true. The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book— a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every reperusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an ITALICIZED passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me.

A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them.

Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?

Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi (pp. 46-48).  Kindle Edition.Emphasis mine.

How the Entrepreneur Creates and is Created

Featured image is Sir Francis Baring, by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Entrepreneurs are not as free or powerful as we like to imagine, nor can they be entirely subsumed into the larger forces of history.

In Knowledge and Coordination, Dan Klein points to “The Verger,” a short story by W. Somerset Maugham, as a great telling of entrepreneurship in practice. The titular character goes in search of a cigarette and realizes that there is nowhere he can buy one in the vicinity.

“That’s strange,” said Albert Edward.

To make sure he walked right up the street again. No, there was no doubt about it. He stopped and looked reflectively up and down.

“I can’t be the only man as walks along this street and wants a fag,” he said. “I shouldn’t wonder but what a fellow might do very well with a little shop here. Tobacco and sweets, you know.”

He gave a sudden start.

“That’s an idea,” he said. “Strange ‘ow things come to you when you least expect it.”

Klein uses this as an example of entrepreneurship on the model of his mentor, Israel Kirzner. Kirzner is an economist in the Austrian school, who emphasizes the role of alertness and frameworks in entrepreneurship. The Austrian school more broadly defends entrepreneurship as a creative act.

For neoclassical economics, however, this sort of arbitrage is more a feature of the situation than the individual. The shop that the protagonist sets up is like one of the corner stores that is very common in New York City. A lower density neighborhood may have relatively few of them, but then see an influx of people and suddenly gain a few more. The situation creates the arbitrage opportunity, not the entrepreneur.

Continue reading “How the Entrepreneur Creates and is Created”

Dark Passenger

Traveling southbound in the springtime is the derelict’s time machine. As the miles flit by, leaves ripen to maturity and the sun bakes the bone-warming heat into the glad rocks. Ordinarily, spring breezes make for easy enough sailing, but inside the aptly-named Hecate Strait, the breath of dead sailors roused from their tormented slumber pitched Dave’s creaky old sloop more than I might have liked, considering the valuable cargo we carried belowdecks.

“The weather started getting rough, Sam.”

“The tiny ship was tossed, Dave.”

“Feeling fearless, Sam?” Continue reading “Dark Passenger”

An Appreciation for Irony…

Irony is in a state of disrepute. It’s been used and abused by hipsters who wear “ironic” clothing and facial hair based on the self-conscious selection of a style because it’s ugly or anachronistic or inappropriate for a grown man in his thirties. It’s an empty, hollow irony, as opposed to critical, elevating, or subversive.

That’s a shame, because an appreciation for irony is perhaps the highest virtue. Formally, irony (whether dramatic, verbal, or situational) is a kind of capacity for double meaning. Done right, it permits one to stand with one foot in two parallel universes, one meaningful and the other absurd, and live a richer life.

“The literal mind is baffled by the ironic one, demanding explanations that only intensify the joke,” wrote Christopher Hitchens in Letters to a Young Contrarian. To illustrate, he retells a true story from humorist P.G. Wodehouse, who was accidentally captured during the 1940 German invasion of France:

Josef Goebbels’s propaganda bureaucrats asked him to broadcast on Berlin radio, which he incautiously agreed to do, and his first transmission began:

Young men starting out in life often ask me—“How do you become an internee?” Well, there are various ways. My own method was to acquire a villa in northern France and wait for the German army to come along. This is probably the simplest plan. You buy the villa and the German army does the rest.

Somebody—it would be nice to know who, I hope it was Goebbels—must have vetted this and decided to let it go out as a good advertisement for German broad-mindedness. The “funny” thing is that the broadcast landed Wodehouse in an infinity of trouble with the British authorities, representing a nation that prides itself above all on a sense of humor.

Wodehouse’s answer, that the best way to become a German internee is to buy a villa in France, is hilarious because it confuses cause and effect so patently. But that’s what happened. He bought a villa in France and got captured by German invaders. By framing the literal fact as a kind of piece of advice to an aspiring internee his radio opening underscores the raw absurdity of the war.

And war is absurd. But to the “very serious people” like the British, this war was not absurd. It was a noble cause in the defense of freedom, justice, democracy, and all that is right. To be ironic about something as serious as that was frivolous bordering on treacherous.

The thing is, though, that war can be both absurd and serious. Wodehouse’s irony uses a degree of ignorance or naiveté (feigned, in his case) to convey a penetrating and self-conscious insight. Similarly, absurdity only exists by way of contrast with radical purpose, knowledge and intelligibility.

It’s necessary to living at all that we believe the word makes conceptual sense and that we exist in it with definite purpose. Nonetheless, on some level our social practices and biological imperatives are deeply arbitrary, even weird, in a way that ought to induce nervous laughter. The goal of irony is to reconcile these two truths—to maintain a level of awareness that is neither overly self-serious or frivolous to the point of nihilism, and, when possible, to put it toward an edifying use.

Skin War’s Dual Identity

Take Skin Wars, a reality TV show that pits a bunch of random artists in body painting competitions. I found it while flipping through the TV guide, drawn in by the title and my primal alertness to all things ostensibly nude and aggressive.

Not fully knowing what to expect, I was amused that such a niche show even exists, followed by stunned to discover it was in its third season. I immediately traced the holy cross across my chest in awe at “the extent of the market,” before I suddenly realized what the real appeal of the show was: An excuse for never-ending shots of side boob.

skin wars

Essentially, the show is soft-core pornography with an art competition overlaid in order to provide the viewer additional fodder and a degree of plausible deniability. The fascinating part is how, couched within its brazen and kitsch totality, there are a dozen or so completely serious contestants.

With each body painting they explain the deeper meaning behind the work while being brutally critiqued by RuPaul. Half the time it feels like contestants are being rewarded less for their artistic ability than for their skill at impromtu apophenia. After the loser of each episode is eliminated, he or she invariably propounds one last time on the unappreciated genius of their Starry Night nipple integration, while casting shade on the remaining artists as unworthy hacks.

Taken as a whole, I believe Skin Wars is an excellent metaphor for the human condition. From behind the forth wall, as viewers looking in, the show is unapologetically absurd, if not borderline silly. And yet for the show to work at all it depends crucially on an internal, unironic kernel of purpose and earnestness in each and every participant. (Note: Nathan for You does an amazing job satirizing this common Reality TV dynamic).

Each half—from the show’s ratings savvy writer-producers, to their humorless Craigslist recruits—are necessary to the ironic whole. Just as one can forget to have fun through stern objections to the paucity of male models or the cynically slick editing, one can also become too invested in whose face paint was most on point. Only a sense of the show’s multifaceted irony allows for a critical though healthy engagement. 

It’s thus appropriate RuPaul is a main judge. He embodies the exact same duality of serious artiste meets outrageous performance theater. Shakespeare also made great use of dramatic irony through mistaken (sexual) identity. It is no accident that appreciation of irony is required for appreciation of drag.

Yet if irony is going to be reclaimed from the hipsters it’s got to be handled with care. Too often irony done poorly collapses into straight-up cynicism, which is ironic, since the cynic is excessively sincere in his own way. And so as with all virtues, irony requires practice, judgment and finding the right balance.

What the Addict Knows

Featured Image is Evening in Arcadia, by Thomas Cole.

How many of us have known an addict who has broken our hearts too many times with their promise to get clean, for good this time?

Many of us have struggled with addictions of our own. The rest of us have surely been in a position where we told ourselves or others that we would change in some way, and even believed that we could and would, but did not.

Aristotle spoke of akrasia; of knowing what we should do but failing to do it, or knowing what we should not do and doing it anyway. But my question is: do we know we will fail?

If you’re addicted to heroin, or cocaine, cigarettes or alcohol—how can you know if you will quit, when you say that you will? Can you know it, except in retrospect? And how long must you wait before you can say it in retrospect? People can fall off the wagon after decades. Can we know that we will get clean for good, or should we call no man clean until he is dead?

Continue reading “What the Addict Knows”

Certainly

Featured image is Lord Byron On His Death-Bed, by Joseph-Denis Odevaere.

I’m not looking forward to the process of dying. Whatever one’s beliefs about the afterlife, my thoughts will inevitably turn to the course of my life – my accomplishments and failures, regrets and reprisals, triumphs and shortcomings. It’s the final act of accounting for oneself – for every good deed and praiseworthy act I can think of, it’s guaranteed that there was an equal and opposite instance  of personal or moral failure. We all want to make peace, and allow ourselves to rest, in hope that our final thoughts will be positive, happy. The harder we think about life, though, the less sure we are that we are good people. No one wants to die a failure.

This line of thinking inspires a great deal of humility. No matter how right you think you are, how much good you think you’ve done, if you were twenty minutes from dying you might worry that you weren’t right enough, or good enough, to die at peace with yourself.

This kind of humility is, in my opinion, important and positive. Taken to the extreme, though, it is paralyzing, and the one thing worse than dying in a state of philosophical uncertainty is living in one. Continue reading “Certainly”