Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Theology: John Milbank On The Church

Time to breathe life into a semi-regular feature of this blog.  It really depends on what I’m reading in any given week and whether I remember that it’s Friday.

John Milbank is a contemporary British theologian, sometimes associated with a school of thought known as Radical Orthodoxy.  He’s a difficult thinker to engage, since his project is a prolonged engagement with modernity and philosophy that demands a lot of the reader.   However, in this paragraph, from the Preface to the Second Edition of his book Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Blackwell Publishing, 1990, 2006) he offers a helpful comment on how the church, understood broadly, and its worship and liturgy can only be understood in terms of the economy of the Trinity.

“So in the Incarnation, God as God was able perfectly to fulfil the worship of God which is nevertheless, as worship, only possible for the creature.  This descent is repeated and perpetuated in the eucharist which gives rise to the ecclesia, that always ‘other-governed’ rather than autonomous human community, which yet is the beginning of universal community as such, since it is nothing other than the lived project of universal reconciliation.  Not reducible to its institutional failures and yet not to be seen as a utopia either, since the reality of reconciliation, of restored unity-in-disparity, must presuppose itself if it is to be realizable (always in some very small degree) in time and so must be always already begun.  The Incarnation was the ‘impossible’ arrival of that always-already and for that reason involved the coincidence of a finite personality with an infinite hypostasis.  The concrete social realization of the always-already must run, as Rowan Williams frequently emphasizes, only through and despite the mess of constant institutional wranglings and renegotiations, as well as inter-personal tribulations (since we must not forget that ‘Church’ may most be there when two or three idly or perplexedly wander beside a river).  Although ontologically non-reactive, it is always temporally present despite temporal false deprivations."

Military Picture Of The Week



A nice example of international interoperability.  A Polish helicopter overflies soldiers from the Royal Canadian Regiment during recent training in Eastern Europe.   More photos and background here.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Is PTSD A Defence For Moral Lapses? The Case of Senator Walsh


In yesterday’s post on military medals and integrity, I mentioned that embellishing one’s credentials is a fairly common failing.   A case in point is U.S. Senator John Walsh (Democrat, Montana), who has in past tweaked his resume to make it sound more impressive.  According to today’s New York Times, Senator Walsh’s congressional bio once said that he was a graduate of the University of Albany, State University of New York, when “he actually earned his B.S. degree from what was then known as Regents College, an adult learning institute that issued degrees under the umbrella of the University of the State of New York”.  That may not seem like a big deal, and Senator Walsh amended his bio (without comment) when a political newspaper looked into his credentials.  

A bigger deal, reported today, is that when Senator Walsh was an officer in the US Army, and was a student at the US Army War College in Carlisle, PA in 2007, he appears to have plagiarized the final paper for his Master’s degree.  The NYT piece offers numerous examples of how Walsh included the material of other authors in his essay without quotation marks, often changing a word or two.  While some of these sources were footnoted, the absence of quotation marks is crucial.  Any undergraduate knows (or should know) that quotation marks tell one’s reader that the words and thoughts are not one’s own, and any attempt to suggest otherwise is a serious instance of academic dishonesty. A War College faculty member is quoted in the NYT article as saying that the importance of academic honesty is something that is made quite clear to the students - “We drill that in incessantly”. 

A postgraduate degree in contemporary western militaries is a significant rung on the career ladder to senior rank, or, in military slang, a “check in the box” necessary for promotion.   While any university instructor will tell you that academic fraud is a serious problem on college campuses, one would hope that military officers would have a sounder understanding of personal and professional integrity than a callow undergraduate.

Senator Walsh has told the Associated Press that his war experience in Iraq led to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which affected his judgement.   “I don’t want to blame my mistake on PTSD, but I do want to say it may have been a factor.  My head was not in a place very conducive to a classroom and an academic environment”.   In the same interview, he said that he “didn’t believe” that he had plagiarized his paper.

It’s tempting to think that in the hyper-partisan climate of US politics, Senator Walsh’s opponents will try to exploit this story.   A Montana Democrat is already using the words “smear campaign”.   However, to be fair, the Senator’s military credentials, including his War College degree, doubtless made him an attractive candidate in the first place.  At some point the voters will decide, but the story does raise a troublesome question about whether PTSD can be used as a defence for lapses of moral judgement, even if, as in the Senator’s case, it is a curiously high-functioning form of PTSD.  

It would be interesting to hear the Senator comment on the following hypothetical scenario.   A young veteran, attending college, is sitting in his or her professor’s office.  They are discussing the student’s  paper which, like the Senator’s, uses other people’s ideas without properly acknowledging them.  The veteran pleads PTSD.  What should the professor say?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Medal Charges May Seem A Small Thing, But They Say Much About Military Culture

This is a soldier’s resume, if you know how to read it. 

Two days ago the Globe and Mail reported that an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force, Lt. Col. Debbie Miller, has been charged following an investigation to determine if she wore medals on her uniform that she was not authorized to wear.   It’s not clear from the article what the medals are.   In an earlier version of this post, I incorrectly inferred from the article that the medals might have been the Order of Military Merit, awarded for “exceptional” performance of one’s duty, and the Canadian Forces Decoration Medal, or CD, awarded to all ranks who have completed twelve years of service of good conduct. Thanks in part to blog reader Edwin King, I learned that Lt. Col. Miller was in fact awarded the OMM and has certainly earned the CD and clasp, since she was first commissioned in 1981.   In 2012, a court martial found Lt. Col. Miller guilty of twice presenting a document saying she had passed a Physical Fitness test which she had in fact failed, but the investigation mentioned in the G&M article appears to be about medals.

Napoleon once said of medals that “A soldier will fight long and hard for a scrap of ribbon”, which may explain why, in military culture, wearing medals (also known as decorations) that one has not earned is significant offence.   Google “Stolen Valor” and you will find websites dedicated to exposing or “outing" individuals, many of them civilians, wearing medals and/or military uniforms that they have no right to wear.

To those outside military culture, it may seem odd that a person would want to risk the humiliation of being caught in such a masquerade.   However, as Dr. Johnson once observed, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea”.  In a culture, particularly US culture, where the military may be the only public institution that still commands respect,  one could see why some might want the counterfeit respect of being taken for a member of the military.  But even within military culture, the wearing of medals is rather like walking about with one’s curriculum vitae pinned to one’s chest.   In general there are three types of medals, given for good service (like the Order of Military Merit), given for particular tours or deployments (such as to Afghanistan), or medals indicating length of service (such as the CD).   There are also uniform items that connote particular qualifications and elite status, such as the Ranger tab indicating special forces training with the US military, an especially coveted and respected item in the Canadian Army.   Some militaries are more lavish with medals than others.   Our American friends, for example, tend to wear more decorations than do their Canadian and British colleagues.

To go on parade with one’s decorations, earned through sweat, danger, and hard service, is an act of pride.   In military slang, a large collection of medals is known as a “rack”, and a “big rack” is looked on with favour.  I can attest that going on parade with few, or in my case, despite nine years of service, no medals, requires some humility, and I can therefore understand why a soldier, even a senior officer who should have known better, might give into the temptation of wanting to appear more seasoned than he or she really is.   I suppose it could be seen as the military equivalent of burnishing or falsifying one’s resume.    The temptation to exaggerate ons accomplishments has often proved irresistible for the high as well as the low, as is seen in this week’s New Yorker profile of US Vice President Joe Biden, who has been known to exaggerate his credentials during his career.  As Evan Osnos says of Biden in that article, “Looking over the record of his exaggerations and plagiarism, I came to see them as the excesses of a man who wants every story to sing, even at the risk of embarrassment”.

The four principle virtues of the Canadian Armed Forces are Courage, Integrity, Loyalty and Duty.   A soldier, particularly an officer, should understand that these virtues do not permit one to embellish one’s rack or resume, no matter how much they might want their story to ‘sing”.  Perhaps the best antidote to this counterfeit glory is the humility often seen in those who wear their medals lightly, as in the soldier who says that his or her award for valour was really earned by their unit, or in the saying, often heard by Canadian soldiers with the CD, that it was given for 12 (or more) years of “undetected crime”.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Even Genghis Khan Didn't Do This": Mosul Empties Of Christians


Several Christian news sites are reporting that jihadists in ISIS-controlled Iraq are marking the homes of Christians with a graffiti tag, the Arabic sign “nun”, the first letter of the word “nasara” meaning “Nazarene” or Christian.   The meaning of the tag is a warning that the Christians must flee or be killed.  Today one of my friends, Gene Packwood, has started using the “nun” sign as his Facebook avatar as a sign of witness.  

While I don’t know how widespread the use of this symbol is in Iraq, BBC News is reporting that a significant expulsion of Christians from parts of Iraq is underway.   The monastic community of Mar Behnam, southeast of Mosul, was given short notice by ISIS fighters to leave, and were forced to abandon the monastery’s relics.   Mar Behnam was founded in the 4th century AD, and has been a pilgrimage site and part of the Syriac Catholic Church.   The BCC also reports that Mosul’s Christian population has largely fled, after being given an ultimatum to leave, convert, or pay an ancient Islamic tribute tax known as the jizya.  A similar ultimatum was given to the Christian community in the Syrian city of Raqqa earlier this year.  The English branch of Al Arabiya reports that an 1800 year old church in Mosul and its library have been burned, and a tomb thought to be that of the prophet Jonah has been destroyed.

Christians mourning this persecution of our brothers and sisters in iraq should also remember that ISIS is doing much the same or worse to Shiite Muslims and destroying their shrines and holy places.   We need to pray for them as well as for our fellow Christians.

it’s tempting to see this mayhem as proof of the irrationality and dangerous nature of religion, but for a broader view, for those who have the time, I recommend a piece by Gregory Gause of the Brookings Institute on how sectarianism is being used as a weapon in a larger Middle East cold war.  Here’s an excerpt.

"The current confrontation has an important sectarian element, but it cannot be accurately understood simply as a 'Sunni versus Shia' fight. Applying such a framework can distort analytical focus, oversimplify regional dynamics, and cause Iran and Saudi Arabia's motives to be misunderstood. Riyadh and Tehran are playing a balance of power game. They are using sectarianism in that game, but both have crossed the sectarian fault line in seeking regional allies. The regional cold war can only be understood by appreciating the links between domestic conflicts, transnational affinities, and regional state ambitions. It is the weakening of Arab states, more than sectarianism or the rise of Islamist ideologies, that has created the battlefields of the new Middle East cold war. Indeed, it is the arc of state weakness and state failure running from Lebanon through Syria to Iraq that explains the current salience of sectarianism. Given how difficult it will be to reconstruct stable political orders in these and other weak states, the likelihood is that the new cold war will be as protracted as the Arab cold war was."



Friday, July 18, 2014

David Rothkopf on the "Ragged Edges" of Modern Conflict


 Barring some awful, “Guns of August” style massive conflict that may be waiting around the corner (an uncomfortable thought in July of the centennial year of 1914, when so many tinderboxes are scattered around the world), the conventional wisdom of military near-futurists is that wars will be messy but essentially small-scale, asymmetrical, low-intensity affairs, where smarts, technology, and agile use of politics and media will give one side or the other an edge.

The temptation of such scenarios is thinking that these sorts of conflicts can be managed and their human cost can be minimalized, marginalized, rationalized and generally explained away.  In the last few days, however, we’ve seen dead Palestinian children on a beach or a shattered civilian airliner, its human cargo suddenly and horrifically extinguished, reminding us that the human costs of even limited war will always be more unpredictable than the war-managers would like.

Today on the Foreign Policy website, David Rothkopf muses on these sudden and brutal costs occur at the “ragged edges” of contemporary war, and suggests that human cost, always unpredictable and surprisingly horrific, indicts the “hubris” of leaders who think that they can control the uncontrollable.   The medievals, with their idea of the Wheel of Fortune as a symbol for the uncertainty of the world and a warning for the ruler who might trust his fortunes to war, seem closer to us, and wiser, than we might think.

In the first half of the twentieth century, wars were formally declared and were governed by treaties and rights regimes such as the Geneva Convention, which went some way towards mitigating, or at least contextualizing, the grievous costs of total war.   Bombing cities and killing civilians was horrible, but it could be justified, however dubiously:  it was reciprocal (they bombed us first), it was necessary (those civilians also work in war plants and support their government), it was existential (we need to do whatever it takes to win, or our civilization will be lost), or even humane (the harder we bomb, the sooner they’ll give up and in the end we’ll save lives).    It was possible to bomb enemy cities and still expect that certain standards of humanity would prevail, so that, for example, captured aircrew would be treated properly as POWs by the same people they had bombed. As Rothkopf notes, in total war, the term “collateral damage” doesn’t make much sense, since one does what one has to do to prevail.  In total war, all damage is proximate.  There is no collateral.

Post Iraq and Afghanistan, the temptation for the West is to get out of these messy and indeterminate wars, to retreat to within the relative safety of ourborders, and to manage the risks of entering or avoiding small wars and conflicts as cleverly and carefully as we can.    However, in our globalized world, civilian airliners, like the ocean liners of the early 20th century, will continue to link cities. Last week I flew across the Atlantic to Rome, and other than the usual vague annoyances at airport security (which make us acknowledge, however lightly, the possibility of terrorism), I never imagined that there was any greater risk.   For the last decade we’ve thought about shoe bombs and underwear bombs and box cutters.  I am sure that the people on MH17, even if they looked at the maps on their TV screens and realized they were flying over the Ukraine, never thought for a moment that they could be swatted down by a conventional missile developed and built in the late Cold War.  Likewise, I am sure that most people on the RMS Lusitania never imagined that war would touch them until a German torpedo struck them.   While there were debates about whether Germany and Britain violated an international agreement known as the Cruiser Rules (the Germans by firing on a civilian ship without warning, the British for putting munitions on a civilian ship), it triggered a crisis that eventually brought the United States into the Great War.  That consequence was probably not foreseen by the German war planners when they first decided to use their submarines  to declare a zone of war around the British Isles.  Collateral damage then, as now, can have unpredictable consequences.

It will be interesting in the days ahead to see what can be learned about the downing of MH17, and about the responsibility for that act and where, if anywhere, it leads the world community that still wants to believe in the ideal of safe civilian air traffic, if not in any greater responsibility for the prosecution of war crimes.   As for Israel’s Gaza incursion, I heard an Israeil diplomat to the US make this statement of belief in the possibility of the carefully managed war on the PBS NewsHour this Wednesday.  

"And I think we should wait, hopefully, when this operation will come to an end, and we will get a good understanding of what happened.It’s important to realize Hamas uses the Palestinian population as human shields. They put missile batteries next to schools, mosques, hospitals. They are doing everything they can to put the Palestinian population in Gaza into harm’s way.Israel is doing everything it can, whether it’s dropping flyers, calling people, sending text messages, taking all sorts of actions to get the Palestinian civilians out of harm’s way."

I don’t personally know what to think about Israel vs Gaza.   I can see the validity of arguments based on Israel’s right to exist and its need to be recognized as a state as a precondition to peace.  I can see why Palestinians can see themselves as an oppressed and occupied people, living in what is essentially a walled ghetto.  But I fear, listening to the Israeli envoy on Wednesday, that there is the comfort of a script unfolding, a script that says war can be managed politically and technologically with minimum collateral damage, and I fear that this comfort is illusory and that, one day, this script will go horribly wrong.



Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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