Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ambrose's D-Day

In the past, I've read/reviewed one WWII book by Stephen Ambrose (Band of Brothers) and his book on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Undaunted Courage. I've also read/reviewed two of the three WWII books by Michael Atkinson (on the North Africa and Italy parts of the European campaign) and Laura Hillenbrand's book on the amazing Louis Zamperini, Unbroken (to be released as a movie around Christmas)-- the bulk of which covers his experience during WWII.

Some time ago, I had picked up Ambrose's D-Day and finally got around to reading it, finding a bloc of time when I could enjoy a book without needing to pay great attention to what I was reading.

Ambrose describes the importance of the military's experience in Africa and Italy (39-40). In part, soldiers were now veterans, but the larger issue was the growth in the leadership (a point emphasized by Atkinson). This was the crucial battle-- at least looking back. We'll never know what would have happened if D-Day had failed. But it seems like the moment in which the Allies would be turned back (perhaps permanently) OR that a defeat would allow the Nazis to stall for time. Getting on the Continent in France on D-Day would be a morale-crusher (41), signaling the impending end of the War. Given its material advantages, establishing a beachhead would make Allied victory only a matter of time, effort, and carnage.

Ambrose spends about half the book on the preparation for D-Day. The reconnaissance efforts were impressive-- from types of sand at various beaches to in-land photos. At the end of the day, things were so crazy as they attempted to land-- that the recon efforts bore relatively little fruit. One noteworthy oversight: they noted the many hedgerows, but were unaware of their thickness and height, assuming that they would be the same as their shorter English cousins (452). This caused a lot of trouble for the gliders that were bringing troops and equipment inland.

The Allies were also busy with an immense plan of deception, including double-agents and faux cryptology (54-55). They set up a variety of "dummy operations", especially hinting at an attack on Pas-de-Calais, where the Nazis anticipated the primary attack given its proximity to England. I was surprised to learn how little the Germans could see and anticipate-- not so surprising when one considers the available technology and how much the Allies controlled the skies. If I'm "on the ground" and see 10,000 troops coming, is that *the* invasion or just a distracting military thrust?

Controlling the air, the Allies also bombed at will. It was a huge effort with limited direct success. Its impact was largely indirect-- as the Germans were weakened inland, reducing their industrial production and in particular, limiting supply lines and troop/tank mobility (251).

The Germans invested heavily in their defenses at the Atlantic Wall (321), including barriers and mines on beaches. Their cross-fire and impenetrable "pillboxes" were very effective, until the Allies established their beachhead and approached the Germans from behind. However, the emphasis on the first line of defense made it prohibitively difficult to counterattack (454) .

The Germans had other problems: they were surprised; they were confused; and their command structure was a mess. The generals did not trust each other; Hitler controlled everything and slept till noon that day; and Field General Rommel was out of town (480-483). Rommel expected the invasion at higher tides. So, he was in Berlin visiting his wife when the invasion began. Moreover, it took him days to get back to the front; he couldn't fly back with the Allies controlling the skies and driving was difficult with all of the bombing (175).

Ambrose points to the key role of the destroyers (ch. 20)-- as they were able to come in close to shore and provide cover fire. Making themselves vulnerable to German guns, Ambrose sees them as unanticipated and unsung heroes. He also noted that engineers were almost one-fourth of the troops on D-Day, given all that they needed to do (143).

A few miscellaneous things...

I've always enjoyed looking for references to religion and morality in books written about earlier time periods in American history. We're often told that the pre-1960s were stronger in this regard, but I've long had my doubts. After all, the parents of the 1950s gave us the children of the 1960s. My suspicion is that most of the "religous" belief was in "civil religion" (vs. Biblical Christianity) and much of the good behavior (such as it was) stemmed from cultural conformity. The other books I've read seem to echo that interpretation. In many cases, the colorful references far outweigh what you would expect from a more moral time. Here, as well, there are plenty of references to sex and drunkenness (51, 133, 153).

But, in all, I'd say that the ledger is much more balanced-- perhaps even leaning toward morality and faith. Ambrose cites the Catholicism and character of Bob Mathias (23). He notes that the signal phrase used in one phase was "Praise the Lord" (426). He points to the practice of "quickie marriages" (488) in order to have a licit sexual encounter before heading off to war. He spends a lot of time on the exhortation and prayer that Ike distributed just before the invasion, something that became a treasured memento for many troops (171). Millions of condoms were distributed, but most were used to protect weapons from water and sand (153). Finally, he spends a big chunk of time (491-496) on the prayerful responses back home to D-Day: FDR's public/radio prayer; the Lord's Prayer on the front page of the NY Daily News, the New York Times' prayer/editorial. In sum, Ambrose notes that "the impulse to pray was overwhelming".

Two bits of syncretistic evidence may explain the combination. First, Broadway and many stores shut down; and sporting events cancelled. But Wall Street and politicians were doing business as usual. The "powers that be" continued on as if nothing significant was happening, but daily life was more reflective and centered. Second, Ambrose says that most soldiers had a "Lord was I lucky" story (447). When you're believing in the Lord, you can't believe in "luck". Perhaps these sorts of inconsistencies are the best way to think about that era in terms of religion and morality.

One area where morality was still clearly a mess: African-Americans were active in the military, but segregated and relegated to relatively modest roles: 150K troops, but mostly in supply. They had three infantry divisions, but only one saw combat (147), including one battalion at Omaha Beach. Later, they served a more prominent role in moving from truck drivers to infantry at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 (372). A racial irony: the Germans assumed racial superiority, but then had to depend on all sorts of "racially-inferior" conscripts from conquered areas (33-34).

Individuals are praised throughout the book. A few struck me as particularly praiseworthy: Harrison Summers is described as the "Sgt. York of WWII" (297-299); Teddy Roosevelt Jr. was the oldest man to go ashore on D-Day (258) and an effective, inspirational leader. Col. George Taylor and Gen. Norman "Dutch" Cota also received particularly impressive commendations.

A few other small things: The Germans had canceled their U-boat patrols due to bad weather. And German radar was ineffective because of bombings and the use of "windows-- foil strips that caused hundreds of echoes on the radar" (259). And I would remiss if I didn't note that spam sandwiches were the last-second, pre-invasion meal for many soldiers (260).

I enjoyed two quotes on Ambrose's final page (582). First, he cited one soldier who said, "I would not take a million dollars for my experiences, but I surely wouldn't want to go through that again for a million dollars." Not that there's much of a comparison, but it reminds me of something I've often said about grad school: I can recommend having a PhD, but I cannot recommend getting a PhD.

And I will follow Ambrose in using John Ellery's poignant words to close: "My contribution to the heroic tradition of the US Army might have been the smallest achievement in the history of courage, but at least, for a time, I walked in the company of very brave men."

Sunday, September 14, 2014

God's not Dead on teaching at research schools

Enjoyed God's Not Dead last night... 

Talking some more with Tonia: Before becoming a Christian, she had an experience like the movie at U of L. At IUS-- or more broadly, at any school whose primary mission is teaching-- it's much more difficult to imagine. (There's probably a regional component to this as well-- more likely on the West/East Coast vs. the middle of the country.)

First of all, the movie's prof is not *teaching* but propagandizing. People who like to teach will tend to teach, not spew crap in service to other agendas. You'll still find people who like to propagandize-- and its extent is more likely through tenure. But I'd expect it to be the exception much more than the rule-- or at the least, a relatively small proportion within most classes. 

Second, teaching is work; propaganda is easy/lazy. Again, I'd expect to see more of that at places where research is primary and teaching is somewhere between modestly rewarded and denigrated. You'd also expect it in fields where the concepts are easier, leaving more room for opinion and fluff. 

Third, profs at a school whose primary mission is teaching will be judged foremost on *teaching* (although research/publishing is expected and supported). Unless it's deeply entrenched, the movie prof's antics would be laughed at, not applauded. In contrast, research schools don't care (nearly) as much about teaching, so it would be more likely in those contexts.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

all of my Joel Osteen posts in one package!

By way of introduction, I should note (again) that I know relatively little about Joel Osteen. I have not seen/heard him preach. Most of what I "know" about him is based on the one book I read by him-- and then various things that I've read or discussed with others (quite awhile ago).

Two other data points: 1.) I've heard people blow him up in a way that seems uncharitable and biased. (I read someone today who messed with Osteen on identical grounds to that which they would defend in John Piper.) I tend to defend those being attacked unfairly, even if the attacks have merit. (If you're going to be right, you should aim to be right, correctly!) 2.) My brother, completely against the relevant stereotypes, is a big fan of Osteen's. (It's akin to me knowing a few people who say they've spoken in tongues AND they're the last people in the world who would say that.) Chris' testimony gives me even greater pause to avoid condemning what I don't know well at all.

Anyway, here's what I have on the blog:

My lengthy review of Osteen's book, Your Best Life Now (check out the comment section underneath the review/post!)

A comparison of Osteen to Chip Ingram

Comments on a C-J article by Peter Smith on the occasion of Osteen coming to Louisville in 2007

Reflections on Osteen's particular audience: here and here. If we allow for different messages within a "seeker-sensitive" context, etc., what leeway do we give here? 

Reflections on the truth that everything here is wheat and chaff. But when does chaff cross the line to "poison"? 

One of my comments from a thread coming off of this post: 

We agree on the importance of the Gospel. But the question is whether Osteen faithfully delivers it to his audience. We've heard mixed testimony in this thread. And what I've seen directly has been within bounds. (I'd still like to here what critics say about my book review.)

So I must refrain from chucking rocks without more evidence. Hopefully, that's easy to understand. As for others: if you have a good bit of direct, negative evidence, then feel free to chuck rocks. If not, then kindly shut up. 

Along the same lines, Mohler's piece should not be used as evidence, since he does not explain why he's a fan of Piper's "Christian Hedonism" in Desiring God and so critical of the Osteens. (For the record, I think Piper's book is fabulous.) 

One other thought: when one says Osteen is "out of balance", it implies some context-- most notably, his audience. To note, if I treat child/student X a certain way, I might be out of balance in one way; if I treat child/student Y the same way, I might be out of balance in the opposite way. We don't read Mt 5 or Mt 23 by themselves and say Jesus was "out of balance".

Clearly, Osteen's audience is the walking wounded. Likewise, Southeast's audience is (relatively) seeker-sensitive. Other churches are preaching to other audiences, that require a different approach. *As long as* it's the gospel-- and good news will necessarily mean different things to different people-- we have freedom in I Cor 9:22 in how it's delivered. 

As for lazy Christians enabling Osteen. I suppose so, if he's a heretic. Then again, it's a relatively rare church that focuses on a full-blooded version of the Great Commission. Converts? Oh yes. Disciples-- in some weak sense? Yes, tons of that. Disciples who can make disciples who can make disciples? Not so much.

What's your church's plan to do that? If it doesn't have one, look in the mirror and focus on what you can/should change. On the one hand, it's a command. On the other hand, to paraphrase Piper, Mrs. Osteen, and Dallas Willard: it'll make you and God happy. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

on ISIS, etc.

I have a friend who imagines that I think ISIS is unimportant since I haven't posted on it. One problem with this standard ("post" = "you care"; "don't post" = "don't care") is that it is incoherent (not applied consistently) and/or insipid (one should comment, even in areas where one does not have expertise or value-added).

So, for the record, if anyone else cares: I believe that ISIS is engaged in evil activity. Also, for the record, I think that killing puppies for fun is evil.

I don't have anything (useful) to say on the former, since I have not invested much in an area that is quite complicated. And I'm not going to rely on a fallacy of authority to say stuff where I don't have expertise-- as, say, Paul Krugman on health care.

I suppose I could repeat some general principles if that would help. Our government has few attractive options-- even if it has the political will to pull the relevant triggers. As we've seen over the past 50 years, government is rarely competent in foreign policy, even with the best of intentions. (See also: domestic economic and social policy.) All of this calls for long-run thinking that looks at both obvious and subtle consequences-- and humility about our supposed powers to manage the world through force. But one rarely sees this among politicians and the partisans who enable them.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

on drinking (and Christianity)...

I had the opportunity to revisit an old, familiar and important topic with one of my high school / bible study students from Providence...

Hey Eric, quick question.  Why is responsible underage drinking sin?  Obviously getting drunk is sinful, but if the goal of the drinking law is to keep kids from drinking too much and making bad choices, then what is the sin in having a beer?  Growing up Catholic, alcohol is something I've grown up around as a very normal part of social events, but as I look deeper into scripture, questions like this have popped up so any insight you could give me would be great. 

My reply... 
Good questions.

-Drunkenness is a sin. Yep!

-Drinking alcohol, per se, is not a sin. Check!

-Illegal drinking (e.g., because of one's age) is more challenging since Paul says we should submit/defer to the State (e.g., Romans 13:1-7). Two angles here: 1.) One can make an argument that I defer to the State's judgments on those matters—if they find me guilty. For example, one might violate the "speed limit", but drive safely, within the spirit of the law. If the police want to write a ticket, then I accept that quietly and move on. 2.) One can argue that I should simply defer to the State's judgment on this and obey the law.

-The State's "drinking age" is arbitrary. Why 18 or 21 or...? (It used to be 18 before the federal govt used highway funds as extortion to force states to move the age to 21!) What's special about 21 vs. a day short of 21 years old? If the State is going to have laws, then it must draw such distinctions. But the distinctions are obviously silly if pushed very far.

-You have freedom in Christ to drink. But you don't want your freedom to lead to bondage (Galatians 5:1.13). Bondage is not worth a beer or three. So, take care, lest you stumble.

-Many times, you'll hear abstainers refer to the "stumbling block" aspect of drinking (Romans 14; I Corinthians 8:1-13, 10:23-31). The principle is that, whatever I do, I should love God and others. Sometimes, using my freedom in Christ to drink might harm other people. For example, if my buddy struggles with alcohol, it would not be loving for me to drink a beer in front of him. But this cuts both ways. Sometimes, people imagine that you can't drink a beer and be a Christian. For them, my abstention might cause them to stumble as they continue to imagine that one can't be a Christian and drink a beer. (This happened to me in grad school. Despite my best efforts to explain that this wasn’t a matter of salvation, I found out years later that a good friend thought that I didn’t drink for that reason!) Or sometimes Christians imagine that you can't drink and be a "good Christian". At times, you let that go (Romans 14's "weaker brother"). But at times, you need to defend others' freedom to drink and/or oppose the legalistic heresy. (Remember our discussion of Paul having Timothy circumcised in Acts 16:3, but refusing to have Titus circumcised in Galatians 2:3?)

Hope that’s helpful!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Horse Whisperer

I've done some research on horses to help with our book on disciple-making, entitled Enough Horses in the Barn. Ann Gillette recommended Monty Roberts auto-biography, The Man Who Listens to Horses: The Story of a Real-Life Horse Whisperer. I got a few nuggets that relate to disciple-making and our book. But beyond that, it was an enjoyable read.

The heart of the matter is Roberts' radically different approach to "breaking" and "training" horses. (Roberts doesn't like the former term, preferring "starting" [244]. "Starting" or "breaking" are negative terms-- getting horses to stop undesirable behavior; "training" is positive.) At least by his account, his efforts were revolutionary and much more effective. By any account I can imagine, his approach would be much more humane than the traditional ways. (He describes his father's general approach as universal and violent/oppressive [39-40].)

In a word, Roberts claims to communicate with horses--understanding them and being able to convey his wishes, to gain their trust, and to get them to do what he wanted.

In Roberts' lingo, the climactic moment is "join-up": when he breached the gap between distrust and trust with the horse (169-171, 244-249). Not surprisingly, he described the moment as always satisfying: as a teacher, it never gets old to get past certain barriers.

I was struck by his strategy of "leaning" on horses (particularly wild ones)-- pursuing them and then retreating-- in both catching and training them. When he retreated, they would follow at a distance. After repeating this process for awhile, they became easier to control (7, 25, 68).

Along the way, Roberts shares his brushes with fame, including doubling in movies as a child for Roddy McDowell, Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney and Charlton Heston (43-44); and working with John Steinbeck, Elia Kazan, and James Dean (who became a close friend) in "East of Eden" (101-104). Chapter 7 is devoted to his time with the Queen of England (including people there trying to mess with him).

Roberts also spends a lot of time on his influential relationship with his father. By Roberts' account, his father was a cruel man-- both as a father, a policeman (killing a man in cold blood), and as a horse trainer. In many ways, Roberts (gloriously) overcame his father's influence. Even so, the scars are still (sadly) evident in his writing.

Two small things: 1.) Roberts is color-blind. Later in life, he realized that it had been a blessing to him, crediting it with his ability to "perceive movement more clearly" and to "see better at night" (105). 2.) Roberts extended his methods to deer-- a remarkable story relayed in chapter 6.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ferguson and remarkable disparities in people killed by police-- by race and especially by age

Check out the charts toward the bottom of this link. Click on #3-- the bar graph with numbers on "male victims of police shootings by race", divided into White (including Hispanic-- I looked that up at the source of the data), Black, and other. The most interesting part is that the data are also divided by age, using six ranges (under 20, 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, over 60).

The data are incomplete, but seemingly not biased in a way that profoundly changes the results. If so, a few, fascinating observations from the data:

-The proportion of blacks killed by the police (vs. all people killed by the police) drops dramatically as age increases, from 56% to 16%.
-The proportion of blacks in the population drops as well, but much more modestly-- from 15% of the population for younger people down to 9% of the people for older folks. (As an aside, this is one way you can infer that Social Security is a particularly brutal kick in the shorts to African-Americans.)

Why are older African-Americans less likely to be killed? Many possibilities:
-Older blacks understand how to negotiate the police better (but are unable to pass those lessons along to the youth).
-Older blacks are less likely to to cause trouble and have encounters with the police.
-Police engage in age discrimination-- perhaps in tandem with racial discrimination. This discrimination could be "personal" (cops don't like young people) or "statistical" (based on perceived or correct stereotypes).
-In any case, race discrimination alone cannot explain these numbers, given that the numbers vary so much with age.