Memorial Day weekend is coming up, and it’s time for my annual Harlan Miller article. For those who don’t know, Mr. Miller survived being blown up in North Africa during WWII, spent years in the hospital, and lived out his life back in Walla Walla as an impoverished hermit. Nevertheless, he was generous with the pennies and nickels that were his tithe, faithful in his desire to know God better, and oddly comforting to those whom he allowed to become his friends. The congregation was his family. The folded flag presented at his funeral rests on the bookshelf in the rector’s office.
If you want to know more, you can search for previous Memorial Day articles about him. This one, written in his honor, is about romance, mission, strategy and tactics.
We’ve been at war for several decades with little positive to show for it. The current administration has done what it could to get us out of them, but like the proverbial tar baby, getting free is almost impossible once stuck. The lessons of war are seldom heeded. One would think that educated peoples would have learned from the insanity of the wars of antiquity, but they were merely a preface to the greater insanity of the twentieth century. Their horror inspired world leaders to say never again, but situations arose and into war we plunged yet again, always for what we were led to believe were good reasons, and sometimes they were. It raises a question; have we become morally inured to war?
Many of the men I talk with, and a few of the women, have been conditioned (by what?) to view war and combat as romantic. Wrapped in unreflective patriotism, they celebrate the gallantry of brave warriors fighting the enemy with valorous courage, willing to give their lives to protect their country and its freedom from an evil, inhuman, unscrupulous enemy. They proudly weep over flag draped coffins. That our country’s freedom is not jeopardized in any serious way by those whom we have identified as enemies is irrelevant, because they have been sold on the snake oil that says it is. To be sure, I hear little about gallant valor and willing sacrifice of life from combat veterans, but many appear to be as convinced as anyone else that the cost they have paid was for a good cause. How else could they live with it?
I recently finished reading a management book written by two retired Navy SEALS. In it they rehearsed the management skills used to take the Iraqi town of Ramadi, and explained how corporate leaders could improve their own management by applying the same techniques in civilian settings. As far as applied management theory goes, it’s basic, proven advice. Not bad at all. But there were several things about it that bothered me. Each chapter was introduced by a story about some aspect of the battle for Ramadi that they were involved in. Let’s face it, SEALS are the heroes of the moment, and they capitalized on that by telling each story as if it were a heroic adventure of righteous men facing a devious, evil, savage enemy. No doubt it has helped sell their book and make them some well earned money.
The authors had a lot to say about mission, tactics and strategy; all important to effective management. But the stories they told took place within a very small square on a global chess board where the overall strategy was unknown and unknowable to them, partly because it may not have been known even to those who moved the pieces around. As it turned out, whatever gains they made in Ramadi were quickly lost not long after they left. And who won? No one knows because no one can say what winning means. Besides, the battle for that little chunk of ruins may not yet be over. What they called mission was merely a move to take a pawn or two. What they called strategy was no more than someone thinking a couple of moves ahead hoping to outsmart the other side, whoever the other side might turn out to be. Moreover, the game was in three dimensions with several players moving pieces, each playing by different rules.
Courage, valor, heroism, great leadership of well honed teams may all be present. Great literature tells of it, movies celebrate it, young people play unending killing field video games imitating it, and we (including me) aspire to see ourselves as the heroes. It’s all a lie. War may have its legitimate ends, but not as often as we might think. In the end it produces impoverished hermits whose bodies and spirits are so broken that life becomes hard, sometimes too hard. Rest in peace Mr. Miller.