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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

An interlude with C.S. Lewis.


"The real reason I cannot be in communion with you [Catholics] is not a disagreement with this or that Roman doctrine, but that to accept your Church means, not to accept a given body of doctrine, but to accept in advance any doctrine your Church hereafter produces. It is like being asked to agree not only to what a man has said but also to what he is going to say."

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Another post inbound.

I've been married to a French teacher for nigh-unto fifteen years. It was bound to happen one of these years.

But such has natural limits which cannot be overcome, and for obvious reasons.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Just so.

Gentlemen, take note. For my part, the next selfie I take will be my first.

The End of the War to End All Wars.

Poilus and Yanks sharing a trench. 
We got along just fine back then.

This year marks the centenary of the beginning of Europe's first suicide attempt, the Great or World War. The World War would get a modifier in 1939.

The Western Front during the First World War was an endless horror of slaughter, mud, madness and misery, broken only by glimpses of chivalry during the Christmas truces or the war in the air.

It is unrelentingly grim to read about--there are few brilliant maneuvers, fewer brilliant (or even competent) leaders or decisions. Mostly, it is simply just a bleak, hellish gauntlet of futile trench warfare punctuated by earth-shaking barrages, the endless chatter of machine gun fire and the grisly thump and hiss of poison gas shells.

Such was the war in France and Belgium from late 1914 through the spring of 1918.

I wish it were an exaggeration. Massive attacks would go "over the top" after days-long artillery barrages ceased...only to be cut down by deafened-but-effective machine gunners who carpeted the lunar landscape with the dead as the survivors struggled through the mud and wire. A week-long assault at the Somme, Verdun or Chemin des Dames would be considered successful if it gained a few miles. 

At the cost of hundreds of thousands of casualties.

At Verdun, the goal of the Germans was simply to bleed the French Army to death, but the Kaiser's army was nearly as damaged at the end of it as their foes. 

In the spring of 1917, the French nearly broke after another futile assault at the Aisne, with a significant part of the army mutinying and refusing to fight. Somehow, the Germans never learned of this, and the French managed to patch together their crippled army.

But in early 1918, the stalemate was broken, and decisively.

What changed? First, America declared war in April 1917, giving the beleaguered British and French hope for reinforcements and victory. But it would take time for an utterly-unprepared America to marshal, equip and ship enough American troops across the Atlantic to make a difference. With the collapse and surrender of Russia in February 1918, it became a race against time, as the Germans used their forces in the East to gain a numerical advantage in the West and attack before enough Yanks could arrive.

The German offensive, called the Kaiserschlacht (or "Emperor's Battle") nearly worked, with the French (with some well-timed American reinforcements) once again just able to stop the Germans short of Paris in late April 1918. The Germans would batter away until July, but the chance for military victory had passed. 

In August 1918, the Allies, now reinforced with one million American troops able to take over a large section of the Front, and another 250,000 more Yanks arriving each month, began to strike back. This time, it worked, and the French, British and green Americans began to break through with fewer losses.

That's where British historian Nick Lloyd's excellent Hundred Days begins. A fair warning--Lloyd's account presumes an understanding of the brief narrative I set forth above. It is not a book to start with if one wants to understand the First World War or even the Western Front. The major players (Foch, Haig, Petain, Pershing) are introduced briefly and with the assumption that the reader knows who they are. The same goes for the great poet Wilfred Owen. Less well-known figures are given more background, including, most touchingly, Lloyd's great-uncle, who died in combat in September 1918.

[If you want a solid general narrative, the American Heritage History provides a good overview. It was a surprise gift from my late grandfather, treasured to this day, so I'm rather biased on that account.]

What turned the tide? In three words: Shells, Tanks and Yanks. Specifically, commanders who knew how to handle them.

Lloyd is careful to give credit to officers who deserve it, and three generals in particular are held up for admiration. Two are virtually unknown, and one acquired a darker notoriety after the war.

The first two were commanders of the Canadian and Australian contingents, Generals Arthur Currie and John Monash. Both were clever and resourceful commanders who did not spend their small nations' manpower like water. They couldn't, even if they had been inclined to. 

Instead, they were masters of the new tactics: the walking barrage and gleeful users of the tank, the now-ubiquitous weapon of land warfare that made its debut in 1916. 

The "walking" barrage would be timed to "walk" just ahead of the infantry attackers, who would go over the top before it stopped. The Germans would not have the chance to man their defensive positions as effectively, having to keep their heads down while the barrage crept over them. Against this, there was no countermeasure. It also invariably resulted in some "friendly" fire casualties, but not as much as one might think.

The British Mark V tank, "male" version. 
"Male" ones had cannons, "female" machine guns. 
I dunno--ask the Brits.

The French Renault FT-17 tank. 
Patton's first tank command was a brigade of FT-17s.

Second, the tank. Ironically in light of WW2 developments, the Germans built very few tanks during the First World War, and the ones they built were overmatched by the British and French models. Of course, when you consider that the Germans stood on the defensive for most of the war, the lack of a breakthrough weapon makes sense.

However, the World War One tank was not the speedy model of the second, and it had an insoluble problem: mechanically, it was as reliable as a rain dance. Most were not lost to enemy fire (despite being very vulnerable to artillery), but to breakdowns. It was typical that an attack that began with 150 would end up with less than ten still functioning by the fourth day.

However, it was well worth the trouble because the tank was the death of the machine gun nests that had butchered Tommies and poilus for the previous three years.

Finally, the Yanks. By August 1918, not only had our troops been pouring into France, but they had been trained by the British and French in the methods of trench warfare. Fortunately, the lessons were taken to heart, but that did not mean the casualties would be light. To the contrary: in terms of casualty rates in combat, the First World War was our bloodiest war, and the Meuse Argonne campaign our bloodiest battle. Lloyd points out a particularly hideous fact about American casualties: over 25% were the result of poison gas. 

But the mere presence of the building wave of Yanks was enough to rejuvenate the British and French. In fact, when asked when the French Army would resume the offensive after the Mutiny, the most revered French general of the war replied: "I am waiting for the tanks and the Americans."

Which brings me to the man who uttered that sentence, the third figure mentioned above, and frankly, the hero of the Hundred Days:

Henri Phillipe Petain, Marshal of France. 

The man who became notorious as the leader of the Vichy French puppet of Nazi Germany was not so stained in 1918. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that he saved France in 1916 and 1917: first by stopping the Germans at Verdun, and second by keeping the French Army from disintegrating after the Mutiny. 

Petain was a tragic rarity during the early years of the war--he was very careful with the lives of the soldiers under his command. His motto was "Firepower kills," and he made sure his men had it and the Germans were on the receiving end of it. So when the tottering French nation had to rebuild her army's morale, she naturally went to Petain, who did so in a nearly miraculous fashion. He restored discipline, but heard out the complaints and addressed them swiftly. He was also very, very sparing in his use of the firing squad: of the more than 500 soldiers sentenced to death for their roles in the mutiny, fewer than 50 were executed. So it is easy to see why the beaten French rallied so readily to the Marshal in June 1940--he was a genuine hero and patriot who had come through brilliantly before.

In 1918, he took to the walking barrages and tanks like a duck to water, and he methodically planned France's counter-offensives. Which, starting in August, began to shake the German forces to pieces. The battle of Amiens was a shattering defeat for the Germans, which their second in command called "the black day of the German Army." For the first time, the Germans surrendered in droves and the Allies broke through with (comparatively) light losses. This was followed by comparable success for the British at Ypres and the Americans at Saint Mihiel. The blows were coordinated and hit the Germans at different parts of the line, not permitting them to shift forces around to support those under attack. The end result was that by November the German Army was near collapse on the front and the Reich was facing revolution at home, making an Armistice necessary.

Lloyd narrates this effectively and with a journalistic prose style that keeps the account flowing. He also offers details from the German side, with the most effectively drawn figure being Erich Ludendorff, the second-in-command referred to above. Despite his humble title of "Quartermaster" of the German Army, Ludendorff was in reality the most powerful man in Imperial Germany from 1916-18, one even the Kaiser dared not cross. [As an aside, Ludendorff would have a positively surreal post-war career, going from advocacy of an Orwellian "total war" state, a mentor of Hitler and Norse pagan to being, as of his death in 1936 a convinced pacifist, proto-New-Age spiritualist and reviler of Hitler who prophesied that the Fuhrer would lead Germany to its destruction.]

In any event, Lloyd's book is, with the caveat noted above, an exceptionally valuable account of events that have vanished from the collective memory of Americans in particular but the West in general. With the centennial of the Great War upon us, we would do well to remember it.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Just because I don't post Catholic commentary these days...

...doesn't mean I can't refer to other people's.

1. Steve Skojec ruminates on the apocalyptic. And offers some solid advice on prayerful responses. The latter seems especially fruitful, and worth pondering. God knows my own prayer life is best described as "undead" these days. Read both.

With respect to the former, I don't have much to offer. It strikes me as moderate, thoughtful and speculative, with Steve freely admitting the latter.

My only thought is it seems to be in the cultural air, so to speak--"it" being apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic thinking. From people spending hefty sums on the latest survivalist "cottage" to shows about "preppers" to hotcake-sales of young adult fiction (Hunger Games, Divergent, The 100), a discordant chord is chiming through our society right now. We sense that something is really wrong, even as we try to distract ourselves from facing it. Mostly successfully, if not entirely so.

I'm the least capable prognosticator you've ever run across, so I'm not going to begin to speculate, at least not in the religious realm (my exegetical skills being even less trustworthy at this point). To the extent I will venture out on a limb, I am reasonably certain we're past the point of no return, fiscally-speaking. We're an interest rate spike from being unable to service our debt. Not a new dark age, but more of a slow-mo tumbledown, with the related corrosive impacts on the social fabric. Zero-sum gaming begins once the money runs out. That, and the scapegoating. Our progeny will have ample reason to resent us, and wonder why we wasted so much time on bullshit and reality-avoidance.

2. Elliot serves up some weapons-grade snark at Catholic quietism, but there's a deadly serious argument wrapped up in it. Namely, in our post-conciliar age, with its mashup of collegiality and soft ultramontanism, Catholicism is no more than what the Pope and/or your bishop say it is.

Given the irresistible and undeniable power of the episcopacy to do whatever they want with the traditions, disciplines, and “style” of the Church at any time in history, why should I bother clinging to those features from any age in the Church’s life, as if such pesky particulars mattered? The Faith is the thing, the Creed is the thing, the Mass is the thing–not how it’s lived, expressed, or celebrated. What am I, more Catholic than the pope?

Admittedly, this quietist position does not help me resolve the tension created by seeking above all to “empower the laity” in the past half-century or more, but, again, I am a mere worm, and the Church certainly doesn’t need my input. The key to Catholic happiness, apparently, is more than “pay, pray, and obey.” The key to happiness in the Church in our day is not simply to submit, not simply to commit all things to the Lord, but, rather, actively to flout one’s sense of tradition and prudence in order to defend and valorize and “internalize” every aspect of the status quo. Resignation is not enough; celebration is the sign of a Serious Catholic. After all, didn’t Luther criticize the hierarchy and various abuses, and we know how that turned out? The key to happiness in the Church now is to breathe deeply and unflinchingly from the exhaust pipe of the New Evangelization as the hierarchy drives the Catholic Cadillac where God knows it must go. Woe to the man who would lay a finger on God’s anointed one. Just ask St. Athanasius. 

Which is, I think, a--if not the--root of my discontent.

By the way, I recognize the following sorta violates my no-commentary rule, but permit me to answer a question/charge posed to/thrown at me before. Namely, if I fall away, it won't be to sojourn to the weird, illogical faerie realm of sedevacantism, nor to the anomalous-status Society, whose position doesn't really compute, even where I sympathize with layfolk who have gone that route. That, and the repulsive Jew-hatred that permeates some sectors of trad-dom also finds fertile enough soil in both places.

Nor does Orthodoxy persuade--despite my incurable love of things Byzantine. I'll just be...gone, I guess. So much for my earlier bravado.

Such are the twists and turns of life. Your prayers continue to be welcome.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The last post on Catholicism.

From me, for the foreseeable future.

I'm tired. Really, really tired. Tired of arguing, tired of getting invocations of authority, tired of the lack of basic Christian brotherhood (mea maxima culpa from me, so please accept my apologies), tired of sounding and feeling like this guy.

The literal Hell of it, of course, is that I might be wrong. If so, it won't be the last time. In this case, though, the stakes are so astronomically-high.

What my essential problem with this papacy is the repeated message I'm receiving, which is:

"You overdid. Yes, it says that on paper, but..."

Most recently:

"All of this depends on how Humanae Vitae is interpreted. Paul VI himself, at the end, recommended to confessors much mercy, and attention to concrete situations. But his genius was prophetic, he had the courage to place himself against the majority, defending the moral discipline, exercising a culture brake, opposing present and future neo-Malthusianism. The question is not that of changing the doctrine but of going deeper and making pastoral (ministry) take into account the situations and that which it is possible for people to do. Also of this we will speak in the path of the synod.”

Wore the ol' tux to a beach party, eh?

Believe me, I understand people who struggle with it. I'm one of them, every month. But you can drive a pastoral truck through that paper, can't you? Older brother-ish? Yeah, probably. But is the teaching morally-obligatory or just morally-praiseworthy? It's still there on paper, but..."that train left the station long ago," as Bishop Lynch shrugs?

Ditto the proposals to offer communion to the civilly-remarried...which are more than a mere discipline to be dispensed at will, as another smart man has noted. The possibilities from such a change are boundless, as some not-so-faithful have noted. If the Church can soft-pedal the words of Christ, especially as consistently understood by the Fathers, then "all things are lawful." At some point, lax discipline hollows-out doctrine, and no invocations of authority can patch that over.

If the sacramental teaching is correct, the discipline follows. If the discipline doesn't follow, what does that say about the correctness of the teaching?

Anyway, I'm arguing again and I'm tired of arguing. Spiritually-dessicated tired.


The nicest thing anyone did recently was offer to pray for me and have a mass said. She doesn't agree with my concerns, but that was actually the great part about it.

So, that's it. I have a wife and kids to love and provide for, an honorable job to do and a septillion books to read and almost as many board games to play. I'm even teaching the older three D&D.

Your prayers would be more than welcome.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

This one caught my eye.

And not in a good way.

A little while ago, Walter Cardinal Kasper argued in favor of giving communion to those Catholics who remarried after a divorce without getting an annulment.

Put as politely as possible, Cardinal Kasper's proposals leave an empty, sham notion of marital indissolubility on the sacramental books while effectively gutting it.

Put more directly: they are casuistic bullshit.

Which makes it a little surprising that the Pope was so delighted with them, given his stance on such forms of reasoning.

Be that as it may, make no mistake--they are a frontal assault on the Catholic claim to indefectibility.

Should they become Catholic practice, I don't see how I could in good conscience remain a Catholic. Just felt like getting it out there, given my prolonged periods of radio silence. Prayer is at the top of my list of priorities.

It's going to be a long, worrisome summer. I hope and pray to God something approximating good sense starts exorcising the Return of the Spirit of '76.