Thursday, May 24, 2018

Colonel (ret.) George D. Stephens, USAR, and the World War 2 Memorial

Reposted from April 2008
Spring break was last week here in Clarksville, Tenn. So my wife, daughter and I hopped in the Camry and went to Washington, D.C. We went first to Durham, N.C., to pick up my father-in-law, Col. (ret.) George Stephens, USAR. George was drafted into the Army in the summer of 1941 for one year. When Pearl Harbor was attacked in December, all service terms were extended, basically, indefinitely. ("Stop loss" is no new concept.) Massive inductions of both draftees and volunteers began immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack.
George said that before his original year's service was up, he discovered he was already an "old soldier." We went to DC to take George to the National World War II Memorial, which opened in 2004 (IIRC) and which he had never seen. George, a widower, will turn 89 in June (update: he passed away in May 2018, less than a month before his 99th birthday). It was a quick trip - up to Ft. Belvoir, Va., on Wednesday to stay the night, then into DC all day Thursday and back to Durham that night.

The Memorial is located at the end of the reflecting pool, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. It is a large memorial, befitting a big war. This is a pic from the memorial's web site, taken from the Washington Monument.

The north end is dedicated to the Atlantic-area campaigns and the south end to the Pacific area. George served exclusively in the Pacific, continuously overseas for 39 months, taking part in eight combat amphibious assaults and the ensuing campaigns. Though a member of the Medical Service Corps, he personally saw heavy combat but was never wounded. I am reminded of Bill Mauldin's classic cartoon of front-line medical personnel:
Caption: "The reason ya don't git combat pay is 'cause ya don't fight."

George was not a medic, but served in aid stations close to the fighting lines and routinely went into the fighting to evacuate the wounded. He has spoken movingly to me of the men who died of their wounds on the way back to the aid station and of a few who were shot to death by the Japanese as George was carrying them to (relative) safety. There was one occasion (or only one that he told me of) when his position was strafed by Japanese Zero fighters. He said it so provoked his ire that he jumped up with his Garand rifle and shot a couple of clips back at them. Didn't hit them, of course, and later he said he wondered why he did something so foolish, since he had left the nominal safety of his foxhole to stand up to shoot his rifle.

A passerby agreed to take this photo of the four of us standing under the Pacific campaign memorial tower. George was a staff sergeant when fighting in the Luzon campaign. During the campaign, he was commissioned a second lieutenant personally by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

As you might imagine, there are a number of World War II vets and their family members at the memorial on any given day. The gentleman below left is from Seattle. I regret that I did not write down his name. He was a B-17 pilot in Europe. He told us he had two bombers shot out from under him, one by flak and the other by the German jet fighter, Messerschmitt 262, armed with 30mm cannon. He said that the Messerschmitt completely wrecked his B-17 in only five seconds of shooting. He was able to land the plane at a US air base in Belgium, but so severe was the damage that the ground crew simply bulldozed it off the runway and scavenged it for what undamaged parts they could get. He also landed the flak-hit bomber, but it was unrepairable, too. His son-in-law, who was with him last week, told me that after the war he became a nuclear physicist.

Here is a view looking from the World War II Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial. The waterfall in the foreground is part of the war memorial, it is not connected to the reflecting pool that lies beyond it.

My father-in-law was called to active duty for two years in the Korean War, serving the entire time at the base hospital at Fort Benning, Ga. Here he stands at the Korean War Memorial, a couple of hundred yards to the southeast of the Lincoln Memorial. The Korean War Memorial is neither as large nor as inspiring as the World War II Memorial. I will say, though, that it seems to be visited devotedly by Koreans who come to DC. There were many Koreans there when we were there. Having served in Korea, I recognized the language even though I cannot speak it.

We stopped to see the cherry blossoms along the tidal basin. I snapped this picture of George standing across from the Jefferson Memorial. I am proud, and awed, too, to say that he is one of the Americans who saved the world from fascism and tyranny when everything dear to civilization was threatened with destruction. It was by his efforts and those of his comrades (never to forget those who gave their lives!) that Jefferson's ideals survived. He helped preserve what he there surveyed.

Below is a video I took of George narrating his service record in the Pacific, walking along the campaign pool under the Pacific tower. Of the 20 campaign locations engraved into the stones, George fought or served at 10 of them. The ambient noise at the memorial is very high from all the waterworks, so you'll have to listen closely to hear George's voice.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

School shootings: We keep moving the margins

In the wake of this week's mass murders at a Texas high school by (allegedly) a 17-year-old student, it is chilling to think that what used to be outside the margins regarding guns and schools is now becoming normalized: "The Best Explanation for Our Spate of Mass Shootings Is the Least Comforting."
Writing in 2015, Malcolm Gladwell wrote what I think is still the best explanation for modern American mass shootings, and it’s easily the least comforting. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex argument, essentially he argues that each mass shooting lowers the threshold for the next. He argues, we are in the midst of a slow-motion “riot” of mass shootings, with the Columbine shooting in many ways the key triggering event. Relying on the work of Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter, Gladwell notes that it’s a mistake to look at each incident independently:
But Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyonearound him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.
Actually, this "infectious" behavior is well known and described by people who study and teach leadership. Take, for example, this video that was used in the TED talk below about the very processes Granovetter described.

Here are two real problems: First is what Granovetter describes and the TED talk confirms: once there are enough early adopters of a behavior, then mass adoption easily follows. Hence, Gladwell's describes school shootings as a "slow motion riot." But portents are that it won't stay slow.

Second is what is revealed by retired Army officer and psychologist Dave Grossman, who documents in Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing and other works that more and more boys are growing up learning to kill vicariously through both popular media and electronic gaming - and that for increasing numbers the vicarious violence will give way to actual.

In one of his early works, On Killing, Grossman documented the great difficulty the US Army had in World War II in training its soldiers, especially infantrymen, actually to take the enemy's life. The leadership found that American men came into the military with deeply-inbred reluctance to harm other human beings, and that only a small minority of infantry even fired their rifles once in a firefight.

Grossman's thesis in what is happening to America today is that we have, as a whole society, moved the "margins" of what constitutes prohibited violence. Prior generations had mass murderers, of course, but even the most depraved killers in the not-too-distant past would never have even thought of shooting schoolchildren at their desks. Now it is, as Gladwell notes, becoming increasingly within the margins of conduct that society has moved.

In the coming days the editorialists and TV commentators will have a lot more to say. I do not expect their offerings to be much different from what they said after the Parkland, or Aurora, or Sandy Hook massacres or ... well, pick one. The media’s talking heads will recycle the same things they said before. We’ll hear a lot about America’s gun culture, and all the talk will be about guns and not about the culture.

Does America have a "gun culture?" You bet it does, and it this is it:

This movie was to open in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012, the
day of the killing rampage in Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Warner Bros. pulled the opening

The Hollywood gun culture:
Business Insider reprints part of an AskMen piece on
The 99 Most Desirable Women Of The Year."
Here is no. 99, 
Bérénice Marlohe, who plays Severine in Skyfall.
Glorifying violence, especially gun violence, is the present purpose of America's entertainment industry. This is what untold numbers of our children are doing in their homes:

The margins continue to be moved, whether we want it or not. Because there is too much money being made by murder-as-entertainment to give it up, and we the people are willingly paying for it.

Update: One of the ways that the Columbine shooting remains key is in how subsequent school chooters have imitated it to some degree. Not every shooter, but enough to see that Columbine still forms a template. For example,
Some aspects of Friday's [Texas] shooting had echoes of the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999. The two teenaged killers in that incident wore trench coats, used shotguns and planted improvised explosives, killing 10 before committing suicide themselves.
As did the accused killer in Texas, except for the suicide. Reports say, though, that he told police he intended to commit suicide but found he could not go through with it.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

"Just Say No– To Local Church Options for the UMC"

One of the most respected theologians of the United Methodist Church explains why the "Local Option" resolution of the present impasses over same-sex marriage and ordination of homosexuals is very badly misguided.
First of all, because they are profoundly un-Methodist. Methodists do not decide major issue of doctrine or polity at the local church level, nor even at the annual conference level. They are quite rightly decided at the General Conference level, which is the only body which can speak for the whole church on such matters. This is why we have A United Methodist book of Discipline, which includes the doctrines and sanctioned practices in it. This has been the Methodist way for basically our entire existence. Ours is not a Baptist or Congregational church polity, nor should it become one. If it did that we would lose the genius that is Methodist connectionalism. So NO!— the local church should not suddenly become the arbiters of truth as to what counts as holy matrimony, what counts as being morally fit for ordination, what counts as appropriate Christian sexual behavior. No, no,no. Whatever solutions we may come up with to deal with our difficulties this is a ploy of desperation that denudes us of our Methodism that should be soundly rejected.

Secondly, for the entire existence of the Christian church, including the Methodist church, Christian marriage has been rightly and Biblical defined as when God joins together one man and one woman– period! This is exactly what Jesus himself directly says in Mark 10 and Mt. 19, and the only second option he gives in Mt. 19 is to be celibate for the sake of the kingdom. He even uses the dramatic term being a eunuch for the Kingdom. To change our view of what counts as Christian marriage is to disfellowship ourselves from the larger body of Christ— the Catholics, the Orthodox, most Baptists and Congregationalists, and so on. We should not go there if we care at all about ecumenism. Modern cultural trends that have affected and infected some of the Protestant mainline denominations here, and in a few places abroad, should not be allowed to overturn 2,000 years of what the church has said about proper Christian marriage.
There's more. Read the whole thing.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The perplexed, confused mind of the atheist skeptic

I do not know anything about the atheist radio talk show in the clip at bottom that non-Christian historian Bart Ehrman appeared on. As Ehrman says in the interview, "I am not a believer" in the divine nature of Christ. And that is probably why, as he says in the tape, atheist groups and the like keep calling on him to help them rebut Christianity. Below is his response to such a call asking him to affirm that in fact no such person as Jesus of Nazareth ever existed.
Alexander the Great.
His historical existence is much less well attested than that of Jesus of Nazareth.
However, as Ehrman points out, the historical existence of Jesus is better attested than almost anyone else from his era, better attested, in fact, than Julius Caesar. And, although not included in this segment, it is probably worth noting that the earliest reference to Alexander the Great, who died in 323 BC, dates from 300 years afterward,  and the record that is considered most reliable dates 200 years later than that.

That's as if we know the American Revolution occurred in the 1770s, but no record of George Washington will be made until the year 2081, 67 years from now.

And no one doubts that Alexander lived. However, the earliest writings about Jesus of Nazareth, the letters of the apostles, date beginning less than 20 years after Jesus died during the governorship of Pontius Pilate.

So why do these people keep insisting that Jesus never lived, that his character is wholly fictional? Because if you stick to that claim, they think that everything else about Christian faith can be easily dismissed. But that is not so, either. About which more later.

Here is the radio interview with Bart Ehrman, an American New Testament scholar focusing on textual criticism of the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and the development of early Christianity. He has written and edited 30 books, including three college textbooks. He has also authored six New York Times bestsellers. He is currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He does not claim Christian faith.

Here is Prof. Ehrman explaining elsewhere that atheists' claim that Jesus is a fictional figure make them, in Ehrman's words, "look foolish."

A companion video is of Prof. William Lane Craig, an American analytic philosopher and Christian apologist. He holds faculty positions at Talbot School of Theology (Biola University), and Houston Baptist University. He has debated the existence of God with public figures such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Lawrence M. Krauss. Craig established and runs the online apologetics ministry

Here Dr. Craig discusses the relevance of non-biblical sources about Jesus. 

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