Monday, November 13, 2006


War and the Winepress

(BUMPED up from weekend post)

Jules Crittenden of the Boston Herald has quickly gained my admiration, and indeed I view him as among the best of the very rare breed of military-minded journalists.

He alerted me to a review he was invited to write by Norm Geras, to speak of others I admire. Geras invited Crittenden to review Alessandro Barbero’s The Battle, “A New History” of the Battle of Waterloo.

Crittenden introduces his review with fond reminiscence of gatherings of a few close battle buddies, during which they much reflect on war. Crittenden speaks of war like wine, and refers to “bloody vintages.” Crittenden surely acknowledges the harshness and bitter costs of battle, but nevertheless notes that those who have lived through war are often fascinated by their experience, even as, by war, they are forever changed.

Here’s Crittenden:
There is one constant of war through time, and that is the base experience of it. Technical aspects may change, but the gut feelings remain the same, and in varying degrees of intensity are shared by everyone who has done this. They are conflicting feelings of horror, fear, commitment, despair, camaraderie, discipline, honour, fatalism, hilarity, sacrifice, bloodlust and the desire to prevail, elements of which combine to carry us through, carry us away or destroy us. For all those emotions, war remains a cold business of will, endurance and deftness. A balance of what is known, what will be found out, and luck.

Once you have experienced any of this, it never leaves you. You will recognize it in others, and you may find yourself studying it, at the risk of obsession. We honour the accomplishments and losses of those who fought when we look back at what they did, though I don't think that is most often why we do it. We are compelled to keep filling our glasses, and there are some bloody vintages that stand out among all others. One of them, one of the more exquisite fields of death on which history ever turned, endlessly worthy of mulling and picking apart, or just staring at in horrified fascination, has been brought back to the table. Waterloo.
Crittendon thereby introduces a fine review of Barbero’s The Battle. Some explanation, an excerpt of a first person account by a Sergeant of the 40th Foot, just enough to allow the palate of experience to savor…

And then this piece of self-reflection, by way of conclusion:
I think about the captain's radioed order to pour on speed for the assault as we came out of the desert at dawn, an armoured column charging a dug-in enemy of unknown strength at Hindiyah. The RPG ambush south of Baghdad, when we shouted and then begged the 25 mm gunner, strangely silent up in the turret, to 'just light up the fucking woods!' The memory of the life leaving a man's face, as a .50 caliber gunner mowed down Iraqi soldiers in front of the palaces in Baghdad. The strangers and the men I know who didn't make it home. A couple of weeks ago, when I had finished reading about Waterloo, my father, who is an old man now, told me his mother's great uncle had been there. This was a revelation. Name of Matthews, nothing else known. Except maybe the shared gut memory of combat, and a vague sense that all of this is somehow tied together.
Tied together indeed. Crittenden’s review, and his introductory vintner’s imagery, brought to mind a verse of The Battle Hymn of the Republic:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Many times since 9/11, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address comes to mind, and what I consider his powerful admonition about complacency, and national sins of omission as well as commission. Lincoln, more so than almost any figure of his time and place, bore the heavy mental and spiritual weight of the recognition that the national sin of slavery had born full fruit, with the carnage of the Civil War, its harvest.

I know that these kinds of moralizations can drive the secular among our former Loyal Opposition nuts, but that’s what strikes me: the sense that larger forces and greater issues ravage the national landscape, much as in the times of Lincoln.

“The Lord is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

The theme comes from scripture, Revelations of the New Testament, wherein all are gathered for final judgment within the “great winepress of the wrath of God”:

14 Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and on the cloud sat One like the Son of Man, having on His head a golden crown, and in His hand a sharp sickle. 15 And another angel came out of the temple, crying with a loud voice to Him who sat on the cloud, “Thrust in Your sickle and reap, for the time has come for You[a] to reap, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” 16 So He who sat on the cloud thrust in His sickle on the earth, and the earth was reaped.

Reaping the Grapes of Wrath

17 Then another angel came out of the temple which is in heaven, he also having a sharp sickle. 18 And another angel came out from the altar, who had power over fire, and he cried with a loud cry to him who had the sharp sickle, saying, “Thrust in your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for her grapes are fully ripe.” 19 So the angel thrust his sickle into the earth and gathered the vine of the earth, and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. 20 And the winepress was trampled outside the city, and blood came out of the winepress, up to the horses’ bridles, for one thousand six hundred furlongs. (Revelations 14:14-20)
War, especially modern War, surely represents the most terrible of the grapes of wrath. I happen to believe that we execute a Just War, in the moral sense, against the forces and supporters of international Islamic terrorism generally, and agents and contributors towards those forces, such as Saddam Hussein, in particular.

I think everything that happens is part of God’s plan, and God will often allow carnage and chaos to follow as the logical and expected consequence to brutality, evil action, oppression, and intentional betrayal of His instruction and the testimony of His saints.

That doesn’t make us Crusaders, we aren’t perfect, as people or as a nation, but I do believe the Nation of the United States, and our Governmental model and instance, was a gift that God allows Americans to share with the rest of a suffering world.

War is a brutal thing. Warriors must often do what no human being should ever have to do. For those who have tasted of the vintage of battle, there is yet an ability to recall, even alongside pain or fear or anger, the camaraderie, shared sacrifice, vivid fix of time and place and emotion. That shared experience ties the many generations of fighting men and women together.

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