Thomas Sowell on tragedy and blame

From economist Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society:

Without some sense of the tragedy of the human condition, it is all too easy to consider anything that goes wrong as being somebody’s fault.
— Thomas Sowell

This week I happened to teach the Bolshevik Revolution, the Red Scare, and Weimar Germany, so this line resonated powerfully with me when I ran across it again. Whether it be the kulaks, the anarchists, the Jews, or someone else, it is easy to search for and find someone to blame when complex things go wrong. The truth is hard: bad things happen. Sometimes the causes do not admit of definitive explanation. Who is responsible may never become clear, and may even be a meaningless question if the situation is complex and its origins murky enough. To cave into the desire to scapegoat—and to indulge in the conspiratorial thinking that usually goes along with justifying the blame you have assigned—is to escape into fantasy and, not coincidentally, attempt to play god.

Sowell again:

The risks of making decisions with incomplete knowledge (there being no other kind) are part of the tragedy of the human condition. However, that has not stopped intellectuals [the subject of Sowell’s book] from criticizing the inherent risks that turn out badly in everything from pharmaceutical drugs to military operations—nor does it stop them from helping create a general atmosphere of unfulfillable expectations in which “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” become a thousand bases for lawsuits.

Compare this line from Isaiah Berlin, which I discovered via Alan Jacobs’s blog: “The sense of infallibility provided by fantasies is more exciting, but generates madness in societies as well as individuals.”

We’ve all seen control freaks lose it when something apparently minor and random upsets their applecart. (Or, if you haven’t seen it, perhaps we’ve been that control freak. I have.) It’s not hard to imagine the effects of that kind of tantrum on a society-sized scale.

Think of technocratic modernity’s general assumption that with enough knowledge and power you can control virtually anything, if not everything. Now consider the ferocity with which the Nazis persecuted the Jews or the Communists royalists, kulaks, or other “traitors.” The threat to their expected order proved so great that persecution was not enough—they sought to destroy them. And it’s worth noting that while both systems—both of which presumed an impossible degree of control over naturally chaotic things, race and the economy—had carefully calculated plans for destroying their enemies, some of the worst outbursts of violence came in the wake of disappointments. Look at the Holodomor, or the final months of the Third Reich.

To conclude with Sowell again, “a general atmosphere of unfulfillable expectations” would be a pretty good title for a history of the present age.

Diocletian on the City of Man Podcast

The City of Man Podcast’s Ancient Aside series returns with its ninth episode. In this episode, regular host Coyle Neal and I cover Diocletian, the first great emperor after the imperial anarchy of the third century; his administrative reforms, including the creation of the Tetrarchy; his changes to the nature of the imperial office itself; his savage, empire-wide persecution of Christians; and our own crippling allergies.

Visit City of Man on Facebook or the Christian Humanist Radio Network’s flagship website, and listen in via iTunes, Stitcher, and other fine podcasting apps. I’ve also embedded the episode in this post for your convenience. Enjoy, and thanks as always for listening!

They Shall Not Grow Old

“Mind the wire.”

“Mind the wire.”

Last night I finally got to see They Shall Not Grow Old, a First World War documentary directed by Peter Jackson. It was magnificent—the best World War I documentary I’ve seen. Nothing I can say to recommend the film is as powerful as watching it, so: Go see it.

There are a couple of directions you can take a documentary on a topic as big as World War I. The one I think most of us are used to, courtesy of Ken Burns and the History Channel (once upon a time, anyway), is a God’s eye view, with talking heads by historians, maps, photos and sometimes reenactments and, depending on the subject, real historical footage. This approach mirrors the top-down narrative approach of most historical books on topics this big and historically remote.


They Shall Not Grow Old takes a different tack, one I’ve appreciated more and more since discovering Sir John Keegan in grad school. In his seminal, discipline-changing book The Face of Battle, Keegan sought to explore not the cause-and-effect relationships leading to entire wars or even particular battles, but instead the “what was it like?” experience of combat. This gives us a grunt’s eye or worm’s eye view, a view in which the concrete details of daily existence—or the end of existence—are the focus, as they were for the people living through it. What was the weather like? How did it feel to be there? How much could you see? How did you sleep? What did you eat? And when? Did your boots rub and make blisters? How did a trench smell? What did it sound like? Perhaps most importantly—who were these soldiers?

They Shall Not Grow Old narrows its focus from the entire war to the lived experience specifically of British soldiers on the Western Front. Jackson, in a special behind-the-scenes feature that played after the end credits at the showing I attended, said his aim was to present “an accurate but generic depiction of combat” for this subset of soldiers. The film is the better for it, I think, in the same way that Dante or Jane Austen have told us so much about the human condition by minutely examining and dramatizing their tiny corner of the world. The effect of a film like this would not have been as powerful had it tried to encompass all the nations that fought.

The big draw is the scrubbed up and colorized footage from the war, and rightly so. Jackson and his team have done something really remarkable here. By slowing the old film’s framerate, stabilizing shrunken and jittery old film prints or negatives, and repairing scratches and dust, the footage ceases to be an artifact and becomes footage again—a view of people, like us, going about their business, like we do. It’s a cliche, but this hundred year old footage comes to life.

Jackson, assisted by foley artists, has also added sound to the film, further enhancing the sense of what it was like. Perhaps the most impressive feat is adding voice to the silent footage. Jackson enlisted forensic lipreaders to discern what, exactly, the men in the footage were saying (my favorite: “Hi, mum!”) and then, in some impressive historical detective work, figured out what regiments the men belonged to and hired actors from those respective parts of Britain to record the dialogue. Mutters, giggles, coughs, exclamations, jokes, and even mundane talk—a sergeant pointing out where to lay down a load, an officer reading a pep talk to his company—all make it real.

Finally, the film features no talking heads by academics or novelists, no narration by voiceover artists, but instead a audio montage of actual World War I veterans recorded during the 1960s and 70s. You’re seeing the world they saw, as much as they saw it as Jackson could manage, and hearing them describe it themselves. It’s a profoundly unselfish way to tell the story, stepping back as much as possible and bringing the audience to the past, not subjecting the past to the present.

The end result is impressive and profoundly moving. Even those of us who have been moved by these photos and jumpy old newsreels have never experienced them like this. Over the course of the film, you feel like you get to know some of these anonymous faces; something of the character, the feel of the British tommy comes through, and when they suffer and die you feel it with them. The audience I watched the film with laughed with the soldiers, chuckled at their antics, cringed at their injuries, and cried when tragedy struck.

This film presents the kind of understanding—of these men, of their lives, of what they lived through—that you can otherwise only get from memoirs and makes it graphically real. Jackson and his team deserve all the praise they’re getting.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a fitting monument to a vanished generation. Go out and see it as soon as you can.

A Night at the Garden

a night at the garden.jpg

This year’s Oscar nominations dropped without me noticing or caring that much. Most of what I liked last year didn’t get nominated, and I’m okay with that. The Oscar ceremony is as meaningful as a given State of the Union address—not very much, and grandiose and overlong to boot.

But as I looked through the nominees in the Oscar categories this morning I was arrested by one nominee in the Documentary Short field: “A Night at the Garden.” I recognized the poster art immediately—a still photo of the stage, complete with American flags and a colossal George Washington, during a 1939 rally of the Amerikadeutscher Volksbund or German American Bund, an organization of Nazis. The Bund held this rally in Madison Square Garden. 20,000 people attended.

While the film is short and clearly meant to suggest Troubling Parallels, the filmmaker wisely lets the images themselves do the talking. (He explains his approach in the website’s Q&A.) This keeps the film from drifting into any of the outright foolishness characterizing our current political discourse. The film will make ideal classroom viewing and should prompt plenty of discussion, from the aesthetics of the rally itself—which worked gangbusters in Germany but mostly attracted curiosity in the US, if not the scorn it did in Britain—to First Amendment protections and the use of force by the police. One could also, if one really wanted to play with fire, start a discussion about why Nazis were fine with the Pledge of Allegiance.

The short runs seven minutes and is available in its entirety on the film’s official website. I highly recommend watching it, and I’m grateful that this is available now. No student that I’ve had in the last six years has known that there was an active and very noisy (if in reality rather weak) pro-Nazi organization in the US before World War II, and when I tell them about this rally they can’t believe it. This footage, paired with a good contextual talk, should come in handy.

Semmes: Rebel Raider

CAPTAIN Raphael Semmes and his executive officer, John McIntosh Kell, aboard the CSS  Alabama  in Capetown, South Africa, August 1863

CAPTAIN Raphael Semmes and his executive officer, John McIntosh Kell, aboard the CSS Alabama in Capetown, South Africa, August 1863

I’ve studied infantry combat a lot and while you can never grasp every subtopic in your field, I’ve grown keenly aware of one big weakness in my studies—naval history. I’m trying to fix that, and just last week I ran across John M. Taylor’s Semmes: Rebel Raider at my local used book store. This book, otherwise an impulse buy, suggested itself for three reasons: I’m interested in the Civil War, I’m belatedly trying to learn as much as I can about maritime military history, and I also passionately enjoy short biographies of the sort that Paul Johnson writes. They’re a demanding form, the sonnet to the full-length biography’s epic, and push their authors to, in the words of Herbert Butterfield, “search . . . for a general statement that shall in itself give the hint of its own underlying complexity.” Happily, Taylor’s Semmes proves excellent in all three regards.

Raphael Semmes (1809-77), unlike the names Lee, Jackson, or Stuart, is probably unfamiliar to anyone with a less than an enthusiastic interest in the Civil War. Indeed, in the last round of protests of Confederate monuments, Semmes didn’t possess the notoriety to inflame even today’s protesters: “Although the protest was supposed to happen around 5 p.m.,” a Mobile news outlet reported regarding the city’s Semmes statue last year, “it appears the group never showed up.”

That Semmes is relatively unknown is strange—he was the most successful commerce raider before the era of the submarine—but not inexplicable, traits that could apply to his entire life. Born in Maryland, he joined the US Navy as as midshipman at 17 and spent almost all of the next forty years in the service, first for the United States and then for the Confederacy. Though a practicing Catholic from the South, he married into a Protestant family from Ohio and relocated to Alabama, where he tried to pursue both his naval career and a law practice. (This is not as strange as it might sound; lots of pre-Civil War military officers had side gigs, some of them much shadier than lawyering.) One can see his expertise in the law stemming from his strictly observed Catholic faith and Southern code of honor as well as his naval experience. After losing one of his first commands, the USS Somers, to a storm during the Mexican War, Semmes asked for, received, and was exonerated by a military investigation. His expertise in maritime law would prove useful for him during the height of his career.

semmes taylor.jpg

He served in and out of active duty in a variety of capacities—commanding naval artillery under General Winfield Scott in Mexico, a duty which acquainted him with Captain Robert E. Lee of Scott’s staff, commanding a store ship, working for the Lighthouse Service as both an inspector and Washington bureaucrat—until the secession crisis in 1860. An ardent secessionist, Semmes believed the Southern states lived under a tyranny crafted to benefit the industrial classes of the North and, especially, New England. When the Southern states began to secede following the election of Abraham Lincoln, Semmes resigned his commission and immediately accepted a position in the fledgling navy of the Confederate States of America.

After a variety of peacetime assignments (it is often forgotten that several months of peace separated the secession of the first seven Confederate states from the outbreak of war), Semmes was sent to New Orleans to take command of the CSS Sumter, a converted steam cruiser. When Semmes embarked from New Orleans in June 1861, it was the last time he would see the South for over three years.

Semmes immediately proved his mettle. He deftly escaped the Union blockade at the mouth of the Mississippi and began a rapid series of raids on northern merchant shipping. Semmes, suspicious as he was of the New England commercial class, was well-suited to the task, and captured eighteen American ships in six months. Without a friendly port to which to send captured ships, Semmes removed their crews, any useful cargo, and burned them. Of the eighteen he captured, only seven were sunk in this way, but he had sent a clear message and would have an outsize influence. Semmes’s raiding not only hurt the northern economy but also tied down valuable naval resources; “by the end of 1861 Semmes was being pursued by half a dozen vessels that otherwise would have been tightening the blockade of Southern ports (36).”

In serious need of repairs, Semmes brought the Sumter into port at Gibraltar in 1862 for refitting. There the Union navy caught up to him and kept watch for him to depart British waters. Eventually, with the Yankees too close and the estimated repairs to the Sumter too expensive, Semmes paid off his hired crew and he and his officers sailed to England, where they took command of the ship that would create his legend—the CSS Alabama.

Was there ever such a lucky man as the Captain of the Alabama?
— Admiral David D. Porter, US Navy

In a cruise that lasted just under two years, Semmes and the Alabama ranged from the Azores to the Caribbean, rounded the Cape of Good Hope twice, crossed the equator four times, and sailed as far east as Vietnam, a voyage of 75,000 miles without a stop in a single Confederate port. Along the way he captured 64 northern merchant ships, burning 52, causing nearly $7 million dollars in damage to northern shipping. Throughout, despite pursuit by the US Navy, Semmes eluded his enemies through a skillful combination of cunning, local intelligence, daring, and—once in a while—luck. Think JEB Stuart crossed with Captain Blood.

The Alabama’s cruise ended at the Battle of Cherbourg in June 1864, when the USS Kearsarge threatened to box the Alabama in and Semmes offered single combat. The Kearsarge sent the Alabama to the bottom. Semmes and his officers, rescued by a British yacht, escaped to England. Though Semmes would later claim the Kearsarge had an unfair advantage in that it had primitive armor plating—chains draped along the sides of the hull near the engine—the Alabama was in bad repair, much of its powder was wet, its shells had defective fuses (a problem for Lee at Gettysburg as well), and, most importantly, it did not need to engage the Kearsarge.

Taylor makes this seemingly unnecessary engagement understandable, because he makes Semmes understandable. Chivalrous to a fault, Semmes took extraordinary care over the legality of his seizures and chafed at northern accusations that he was no more than a pirate. He lived by a strict code strongly inflected both by his Southern culture and his religion and held himself to a high standard. That the Yankees he captured did not confirmed his prejudices against the northern industrial and commercial classes. He was appalled to capture multiple northern vessels to find that their captains enjoyed the services of “stewardesses” or “chambermaids.” Their true function could not be clearer to Semmes. “These shameless Yankee skippers,” he wrote after one such capture, “make a common practice of converting their ships into brothels (77).”

“Old Beeswax”

“Old Beeswax”

Taylor’s attention to Semmes’s character and beliefs make this short book (the main body of the text is 110 pages) especially valuable. Semmes—a short, aloof man who waxed and twisted the ends of his mustache (his men called him “Old Beeswax”), who smacked his lips as he talked, who seemed to take no special notice of anything happening below the quarterdeck but always knew what was going on aboard his ship; a strict disciplinarian; a gentleman who took pains to reassure his prisoners that they would be treated well; a Catholic who kept a shrine in his quarters; a crafty, intelligent, and aggressive raider who nevertheless had a wry sense of humor—is as colorful and timeless a seafaring character as any invented by Sabatini, Stevenson, Conrad, CS Forester, or Patrick O’Brian.

But he is also a man of his era. He not only believed in the legality of secession but came to believe it necessary: the north had a Puritan-bred culture of alien moneygrubbers that was incompatible with the older traditions of the agrarian South. He was a 19th century culture warrior. Though he only ever owned a few personal servants, he favored the expansion of slavery to provide a bulwark against the north’s economic oppression. His wartime raiding was not only his military duty, it was an opportunity to stick it to the New Englanders he held ultimately responsible for the crisis. He did not soften these attitudes post-war, either: “Avoiding the false humility and the evenhanded praise of friend and foe that would mark later memoirs,” Taylor writes,

Semmes portay[ed] the war as a struggle between good and evil in which the South is on the side of the angels. He repeatedly compares the South’s struggle for independence with the English civil war two centuries earlier. He likens the South to the king’s Cavaliers, the North to the barbarous Roundheads. As for slavery, Semmes could not conceive of blacks’ prospering in a situation where they were left to their own devices (106-7).

Taylor lays all of this out clearly and succinctly. He also writes elegantly, relating the entire career of the Sumter and the Alabama without turning the central 70 pages of the book into a litany of names, dates, and naval jargon—a striking achievement. Some passages, such as the duel with the Kearsarge or Semmes’s several daring escapes from the Union navy, are even exciting.

It’s also witty and fun, finding ways to portray the human side—that is, the absurd and surprising sides—of the war. For instance, after overtaking the Ariel, a steamer owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt bound for Panama and, presumably, the gold fields of California, Semmes discovered that instead of a haul of gold and goods “he had on his hands a packet with some five hundred passengers, including a rather embarrassed company of U.S. Marines.” When Semmes finally bonded the Ariel and let her go, the female passengers gave him three cheers. Another time, Semmes captured a ship with a personal “stewardess”—“a category of passenger of which Semmes was quite disdainful”—to the captain aboard:

In the case of [the Yankee captain’s] companion Semmes’s attitude was fully reciprocated; she was so reluctant to board the Alabama that the Confederates had to tie her into a boatswain’s chair to transfer her to the raider. Once on the Alabama, however, the feisty Irish-woman, whose name is lost to history, marched up to Semmes and denounced him as a pirate! This was one charge for which Semmes would never stand still; when the woman refused to stop her tirade, Semmes ordered that she be doused with water—the only time he treated one of his female prisoners so roughly (73).

If there is one flaw in Semmes: Rebel Raider, it is that the introductory chapter on Semmes’s pre-war life and the final chapter on his post-war career are too short, too cursory. This is more a problem with the final chapter, which passes from the publication of Semmes’s memoirs in 1869 to his death in 1877 with no description of anything in between. But this is a minor problem and natural to the form, which must be selective, and there are full length biographies of Semmes—including one by Taylor—for these details.

And speaking of “natural to the form,” Semmes’s relative lack of fame—strange but not inexplicable, as I said at the start—is due to his line of work. As a captain in a small, weak navy whose ports were all blockaded, forced to operate for years at a time without a trip home, sailing aboard a British-built ship with a hodgepodge crew of Liverpudlians and other foreigners, and commanding a few hundred rather than thousands of men, Semmes “had no legion of postwar admirers” and had won his victories at sea in what “has been perceived as a land conflict,” leaving “no ‘Little Round Top’ or ‘clump of trees’ to mark them (vii-viii).”

Semmes: Rebel Raider is an excellent short introduction to the tiny Confederate navy, to the complexity of the Civil War political scene, to the ways in which global warfare could effect events in the United States and vice versa, and to one of the great maritime commanders who is less well known than many of his contemporaries in the infantry and cavalry.

Heresy and Apologetics on City of Man Podcast

Another Ancient Asides episode of City of Man has dropped! In this episode, regular host Coyle Neal and I talk about the early Church’s incubation—including issues of heresy, persecution, and apologetics—under the heel of the Roman Empire between AD 150 and 300. Come for the history, stay for the gratuitous ragging of Dan Brown.

You can find the Christian Humanist Radio Network’s City of Man Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and other fine podcasting hubs, or listen in via the Stitcher player embedded in this post. Thanks for listening! Hope y’all enjoy.

Outlaw King on City of Man Podcast

Chris Pine and Florence Pugh as Robert the Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh in  Outlaw King , directed by David Mackenzie.

Chris Pine and Florence Pugh as Robert the Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh in Outlaw King, directed by David Mackenzie.

The much anticipated (by me, at least) medieval film Outlaw King dropped on Netflix Friday. The next day, Coyle Neal of the City of Man Podcast and I sat down to talk about it. Was the film just meh? A giant turd? A bloody muddle? A merely gorier Braveheart reboot? A flawed but interesting depiction of a narrow slice of medieval history? Or was it some combination of all five? Listen in to find out, and to hear Coyle and I discuss the complexity of medieval politics, the roles and difficulties of medieval kings, and the unavoidable Braveheart comparisons. (Click through for my Historical Movie Monday post on that movie from this past Spring.)

I’ve embedded the episode in this post via the Stitcher player, but you can also listen in on iTunes and other fine podcasting media. As always, I had a ton of fun and am honored to be a guest on the show. Hope y’all enjoy!

Sergeant York

George Tobias as “Pusher” Ross, Gary Cooper as Cpl. Alvin York, and Joseph Sawyer as Sgt. Early in  Sergeant York , directed by Howard Hawks

George Tobias as “Pusher” Ross, Gary Cooper as Cpl. Alvin York, and Joseph Sawyer as Sgt. Early in Sergeant York, directed by Howard Hawks

Historical Movie Monday returns from hiatus! This October and November, I’m commemorating the centenary of the end of the First World War by focusing on films about that conflict, and today we look at a film whose central events took place exactly one hundred years ago today—October 8, 1918. The film is Sergeant York.

Well I’m as much agin’ killin’ as ever, sir. But it was this way, Colonel . . . when I hear them machine guns a-goin’, and all them fellas are droppin’ around me, I figured them guns was killin’ hundreds, maybe thousands, and there weren’t nothin’ anybody could do, but to stop them guns. And that’s what I done.
— Alvin York in Sergeant York

The history

October 8, 1918 was the thirteenth day of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. This massive American push into the German lines in northern France had opened with an artillery barrage that expended $1 million worth of ammunition per minute and involved 1.2 million US troops. It was the biggest and costliest offensive since the American Civil War—and is still the biggest to this day. For comparison’s sake, the US contingent of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 included fewer than 200,000 men.

alvin york.jpg

Despite outnumbering the German defenders, the Americans took enormous losses. Modern trench warfare had shocked the scientific, progressive Western world with its brutality, ineffectiveness, and sheer wastage since the beginning of the war in 1914, and nothing had happened over the four intervening years to ameliorate these conditions. The war was pure attrition, and all sides doubled down on it. By the end of the first week of this American offensive, the original units that had gone over the top on D-day were cycling out of the line, greatly reduced, and fresh units replaced them.

One of these units was the 82nd “All American” Division, an infantry division. Soon after moving into the line, the 82nd continued the offensive by assaulting the German defenses head on. Casualties mounted.

On the 8th, units of the 82nd went over the top in an assault on Hill 223, a fortified position commanding a strategic railway line. German machine gun fire butchered the Americans as they advanced across no-man’s-land, forcing the survivors to cover and stalling the attack. At one point on the line, Sergeant Bernard Early moved to infiltrate the German trench network with a small raiding party in order to take out some of the machine guns. Early took seventeen others with him, among whom was Corporal Alvin C. York, a soldier from backwoods Tennessee.

Early’s party successfully infiltrated the German lines and surprised and captured a large reserve that was preparing for a counterattack. While rounding up the prisoners, German machine gun fire caught Early and his men by surprise in their turn, killing six and severely wounding three of their already small unit. Among the nine casualties were Early himself and three of his four supporting non-commissioned officers. The only leader left unwounded and capable of taking command was Corporal York.

SGT. Alvin york revisiting the site of his actions following the armistice, november 1918

SGT. Alvin york revisiting the site of his actions following the armistice, november 1918

York seized the initiative and, with limited supporting fire from his seven remaining comrades, worked his way into the German defenses and picked off the machine gun crews and supporting infantry. According to York, there were more than thirty machine guns firing continuously: “You never heard such a racket.” He carried on nonetheless, working his way from position to position and silencing the guns one at a time. “I was sharpshooting,” he wrote later. “All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn't want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.” Finally, a German officer who had personally shot at York repeatedly with no effect called out that he wanted to surrender his men. York accepted and directed them to the prisoners already under watch with his comrades.

By the end of the action, York had used up all of the ammunition for his Enfield rifle and had even shot down an entire squad of German infantry with his Colt M1911 automatic. When he and his surviving comrades returned to American lines, they counted 132 prisoners, including four officers. He killed between twenty and thirty Germans in the course of the fight. His assault on the machine guns eased the fire on the rest of his unit and allowed the advance to continue, with breakthrough coming a few days later.

York’s actions earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, the French Croix de Guerre, and the Congressional Medal of Honor. And his actions were more remarkable yet in that he was—like Desmond Doss, who we looked at earlier this year—a devoutly religious pacifist. Rejected in his application for conscientious objector status, York had been drafted and forced into the war.

The film

gary cooper and walter brennan as alvin york and rev. rosier pile in a Warner Brothers publicity still for  Sergeant York  (1941).

gary cooper and walter brennan as alvin york and rev. rosier pile in a Warner Brothers publicity still for Sergeant York (1941).

Sergeant York, released in 1941, tells York’s life story from approximately 1916 to his return home from the war in 1919. The film begins with York, a drunken hellraiser, disrupting a service at his devout mother’s church. The opening half of the movie deals with his riotous living and eventual religious conversion—thanks in no small part to his courtship of Gracie Williams, a neighbor girl who helps him turn his life around—with the second half covering his attempts to obtain conscientious objector status, his actions in the war itself, and his return home to Tennessee.

The story of Sergeant York the film is intertwined with the story of Sergeant York the man even more deeply than the usual Hollywood biopic. Following the end of the war and his return to his native Tennessee as a decorated hero, York tried to avoid the spotlight and refused on principle to profit from what happened that day in October. This refusal included film rights to his story. So while there were a number of war stories turned into films immediately after the war, Sergeant York’s was not among them. Compare the “lost battalion,” a unit relieved by the 82nd on the same day York was wiping out machine gun nests nearby. The film The Lost Battalion appeared the very next year and included a number of surviving soldiers playing themselves, including the battalion’s commander, Medal of Honor recipient Maj. Charles Whittlesey.

Because of his refusal to profit from his deeds, York faced a series of financial upsets during the 1920s that were only exacerbated by the stock market crash and Great Depression. Slowly over these years, York learned to use his reputation and image with the public to promote rural education, even founding York Agricultural Institute. But his projects floundered and his financial difficulties never entirely went away. Finally, in the early 1940s, York’s interest in starting a Bible college swayed him to accept an offer for the film rights to his story, and he personally negotiated several terms. He handpicked Gary Cooper to play him (if only we could all be so lucky), and insisted that the events of October 8 not be altered or exaggerated for dramatic effect.

Warner Brothers hired Howard Hawks to direct the project. Hawks, who had directed Howard Hughes’s controversial gangster film Scarface, was a veteran director adept at comedy, romance, and—especially important for Sergeant York—action.

Sergeant York’s standout sequences are the battle scenes. They’re visceral, unromantic, and realistic, even for a war film produced under the strictures of the Hays Code. I find that students, while they may squirm around at bit at the beginning of the clip I show them (beginning with York shipping out for France), get really involved once the attack begins.

June Lockhart, Joan Leslie, Margaret Wycherly, and Gary Cooper in  Sergeant York ’s central conversion scene.

June Lockhart, Joan Leslie, Margaret Wycherly, and Gary Cooper in Sergeant York’s central conversion scene.

The movie still holds up. This is thanks not only to the sure direction of Hawks and the camerawork of Sol Polito, who had shot action and adventure films like The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk with Michael Curtiz, but to the cast as well. Sergeant York is perfectly cast—from Cooper as York on down. Joan Leslie, as York’s radiant love interest Gracie Williams, is genuinely sweet—you can see why York would bend over backward to marry her—even if her Southern accent doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The comic relief characters, which haven’t tended to age well in most 1940s movies, are not only still bearable but funny. “Ma wants ya, Alvin” and “Oncet around her is twicet around Bear Mountain” were catch phrases among me and my friends and still make me laugh. This is particularly true of York’s hillbilly drinking buddies, who could easily be simplistic Li’l Abner types but feel like real people. George Tobias as fast-talking New Yorker “Pusher” Ross is the broadest 1940s central casting type, but his friendship with York still feels real and is effective as a result.

But the standouts among the supporting cast are Margaret Wycherly as Mother York and Walter Brennan as Pastor Rosier Pile. Wycherly and Brennan are the heart and soul of the film—as literally as can be. Wycherly’s performance matches the young, unreformed Alvin’s bluster with quiet strength, a maternal stoicism and unconditional love York can’t escape. Brennan’s Pastor Pile is that rare combination of goofiness and respectability. It’s clear that Alvin respects him even while trying to keep him at arm’s length. While York’s love for Gracie starts him on his road away from alcohol and brawling, his mother and her pastor bring him the rest of the way, to redemption. The culmination of these plot threads is what I still think is the only convincing conversion scene ever put to film.

Finally, there’s Gary Cooper as York. No one could have played the man better than Cooper. His York is a simple but thoughtful man, a man of courage, religious devotion, and moral principle who is nevertheless not a stick in the mud (compare again the winsome portrayal of Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge, which skillfully walks the same tightrope). Furthermore, and perhaps most important for this film, even after the events of October 8 you can see that Cooper’s York is regretful about his actions. His discomfort with recognition and fame won by killing other men is subtle but palpable, and steers the film away from simple jingoism. Furthermore, it makes his relief to be home in Tennessee, to be given a farm, and to marry Gracie at last a relief for the audience as well.

Sergeant York succeeds as a movie not just because of its performances or its technical skill, but because it sincerely depicts its hero’s ambivalence about his heroism and the war itself. Home and peace are the better options.

The film as history

Sgt. Alvin York receives the Croix de Guerre from Marshal Foch in a Warner Brothers publicity still from  Sergeant York .

Sgt. Alvin York receives the Croix de Guerre from Marshal Foch in a Warner Brothers publicity still from Sergeant York.

Sergeant York is historically interesting on two separate levels. First, as a film about Alvin C. York, it’s great, and it’s broadly accurate, which is saying a lot for a biopic from this time period. Second, the timing of the film’s release has a lot to do with the resonance of the film’s message.

York’s insistence on a basic standard of accuracy was not ill-placed, and while the film is, again, a broadly accurate retelling of York’s story, the producers of the film did massage things a bit to make it manageable as a motion picture and to underline what they saw as the themes of York’s life. Though the film opens around 1916—a front page headline early in the movie, ignored by the Tennesseans reading the newspaper, reads “GERMANS SMASH AT VERDUN”—York’s religious conversion took place earlier, over the winter of 1914-15. And while York once compared his conversion experience to being struck by lightning, the literal lightning bolt that stops the film’s York in his tracks and turns him toward his mother’s church was a cinematic invention. York didn’t mind. As his wife put it, “That [scene] was just demonstrating the power of the Lord.” And it’s a brilliant scene.

There are also the minor things films change: York was actually the third of eleven children, not the eldest of three, while his unit is shown receiving M1903 Springfield rifles, York actually used an M1917 Enfield rifle.

Joseph Sawyer, Gary Cooper, and Pat Flaherty in  Sergeant York ’s unusually gritty battle sequence.

Joseph Sawyer, Gary Cooper, and Pat Flaherty in Sergeant York’s unusually gritty battle sequence.

The most important things, however, the film gets right. York did misspend much of his youth and did frequent bars—called “blind tigers”—on the Tennessee/Kentucky border. And this lifestyle did end pretty much cold turkey under the combined influence of Gracie, his mother, and Pastor Pile.

Furthermore, the film’s climactic battle scene is an almost blow-by-blow recreation of the actual event—an unusual level of accuracy from 1940s Hollywood. Virtually the only change to York’s actions was due a technical issue: when attacked by the squad of German soldiers, every one of whom York dispatched with his pistol, the filmmakers substituted a German P-08 Luger since the Colt couldn’t be made to fire blanks. When my students scoff at that scene, I always enjoy telling them that that’s exactly how it happened—with only the weapon changed.

Probably the biggest change is more subtle. When York’s company commander, Captain Edward Danforth, swaps scriptures with him regarding the morality of violence and what Christians ought to do about it, the film has York discovering Matthew 22:21: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.” While Danforth did present his arguments for York’s participation in terms of rendering unto Caesar, more decisive for York was a discussion of Ezekiel 33:1-9. This passage, with its image of a watchman on the walls protecting people “if the sword come,” with a penalty of death if he neglects this duty, convinced York that he could participate in the war with a clean conscience if he did it for the defense of others. Whether he could kill would be the test. And film, following the battle scene, accurately reflects York’s instinctive response when the time came:

York: Well, I’m as much agin’ killin’ as ever, sir. But it was this way, Colonel. When I started out, I felt just like you said, but when I hear them machine guns a-goin', and all them fellas are droppin' around me... I figured them guns was killin' hundreds, maybe thousands, and there weren't nothin' anybody could do, but to stop them guns. And that's what I done.
Maj. Buxton: Do you meant to tell me you did it to save lives?
York: Yes, sir. That was why.
Maj. Buxton: Well, York, what you’ve just told me is the most extraordinary thing of all.

But the other way in which I find Sergeant York historically interesting has to do with timing. Indeed, as I was reading around to prepare this post, I found at least one blogger willing to consider some kind of calculated propaganda conspiracy behind the film.

Alvin C. York and his mother at home in Pall Mall, Tennessee just after World War I

Alvin C. York and his mother at home in Pall Mall, Tennessee just after World War I

Sergeant York premiered in July 1941. Consider the US’s situation at the time: Germany in control of most of Europe and a month into its invasion of the Soviet Union, an invasion sure to result in the destruction of Russia; Japan intractable in its ongoing rape of China; Britain begging for help; and the United States a nominally Christian country in which over 90% of the population favor neutrality and nonintervention. What message could resonate more at that time than that the responsible use of violence to defend others is a duty?

Indeed, the message was controversial—Sergeant York was unpopular in die-hard non-interventionist circles—but struck home. By the end of the year, Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States was at war. Alvin York himself volunteered to reenlist, but more than two decades past his actions in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, overweight, and pre-diabetic, he was rejected for combat duty. He did tour training camps, sell war bonds, and promote the war effort, but the film Sergeant York was his real contribution. Gen. Matthew Ridgway, who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II and later attended York’s funeral on behalf of President Lyndon Johnson, said that York helped convince raw recruits “that an aggressive soldier, well-trained and well-armed, can fight his way out of any situation.”

Sergeant York was the highest grossing movie of 1941 and was nominated for eleven Oscars, winning two—including Best Actor for Cooper. Nevertheless, Sergeant York has its detractors, as I’ve hinted above. During the Vietnam War, the campus left, missing York’s own apparent ambivalence about his actions at the end of the movie, viewed the film with obvious suspicion, and it is, according to York biographer David Lee, often viewed by film critics as one of Hawks’s few failures. The reasons can only be ideological. Despite some misgivings accumulated over the nearly 80 years since, the film has remained popular, and when I ask classrooms full of students if they have heard of him or the movie, there’s usually at least once who has.

I find as an educator that showing parts of the film is useful as an accurate, intense, realistic depiction of World War I that won’t have students puking in the aisles. It’s also a useful callback for when I do reach the beginning of World War II in my lectures, and I have my students consider the timing of the film’s release. Sergeant York involves them in its story the first time around, and in considering it again later—with the larger issues of neutrality and “America First,” just war, and the threat of total and then atomic war in the mix—it always provides food for thought. And I find it particularly resonates with Christian students who want to think carefully about such issues.

Alvin York, I think, would have approved. In his own words, “I do not care to be remembered as a warrior but as one who helped others to Christ.”

More if you’re interested

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Biographer John Perry has published two books on Alvin York. The longer biography, Sgt. York: His Life, Legend & Legacy, appears to be out of print but is worth tracking down. The much shorter Sergeant York from Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounters series is still available and worth the hour or so it takes to read. (Here’s my review from eight years ago.) Especially valuable in both are the chapters devoted to York’s life after the war, forty years in which his return to normal life were complicated by debt, attempts to open first an agricultural college and then a Bible school, and, in his later years, struggles with the IRS over undeclared film royalties that he had given away. There is also Sergeant York: An American Hero, by David D. Lee, from the University Press of Kentucky, which I haven’t read but appears to be a well-researched scholarly biography.

You can also read York’s diary, published in the 1920s as Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary, in a few places online, all poorly formatted. Diary includes eyewitness testimonials regarding York’s actions on October 8. Here are links to the text at the Internet Archive and a site called Acacia Vignettes, which links back to a page at the Alvin C. York Institute, where you get a 404 Error. Happily, in the course of hunting these down, I now discover that the book is being reprinted for the centenary. It becomes available tomorrow; you can find it on Amazon here.

If you’re looking for a good online resource, here’s a quite lengthy and well-researched article from Providence on York’s crisis of conscience called “Serving God or Caesar.”

For the broader context of the war, the late Sir John Keegan’s history The First World War is still the standard one-volume text. On a more specifically related topic, historian Philip Jenkins’s recent book A Great and Holy War is a thorough look at the intensely religious dimension of World War I. All sides of the war—from the Catholics, Protestants, and noncomformists in both Germany and Allied countries to Muslims, Jews, and, tragically, Armenians in the Middle East—enlisted religious imagery for state purposes, and Jenkins examines how this both strengthened and eroded religious conviction during and after the war. It’s well worth reading.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned.


Last night my wife and I watched Chappaquiddick. I’d been curious about the movie since I first heard of it last year and had hoped to catch it in theaters earlier this year but never got the chance. I’m glad I finally saw it—it was worth the wait.


Chappaquiddick dramatizes one week in the summer of 1969—the same week, coincidentally, that Apollo 11 launched, reached the moon, and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon’s surface. The weekend of the launch, Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy attended a party with several friends and staffers and “the Boiler Room Girls,” young secretaries who had worked on his elder brother Bobby’s abortive presidential campaign. (By the time of the events depicted in Chappaquiddick, Bobby had been dead just over a year.) Late in the evening, Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year old secretary, left the party. About an hour and a half later, Kennedy drove off a bridge into a tidal pond. The car flipped and came to rest on its hood and roof, upside down in the water. Kennedy got out—how remains unclear—walked back to the party without attempting to get help from any houses he passed, and enlisted the aid of friends Joe Gargan and Paul Markham. After attempting to get into the partially submerged car, Gargan and Markham told Kennedy he should contact the authorities immediately and rowed him across the channel to Edgartown, where Kennedy went to his hotel room and went to bed. He didn’t contact the police until 10:00, by which time the car and Kopechne’s body had been discovered. The subsequent scandal consumed much of the next week and threatened to end Kennedy’s career.

The film dramatizes all of this in an unsensational, straightforward style that only makes it more powerful. Its cinematography, editing, design, and costuming are just right, nailing a feel of period authenticity without overindulging in 1960s clichés. It feels authentic and the time period carefully informs the plot—several characters bring up the Apollo 11 landing as a potentially useful distraction.

The film is interestingly cast, but all of the actors work well in their parts. Ed Helms (The Office’s Andy Bernard) plays Joe Gargan, an old Kennedy friend, “the only brother I have left,” according to Ted, who becomes disillusioned as a result of the carefully stage-managed scandal. Gargan is the soul of the film and Helms plays him well, as a loyalist whose conscience hasn’t completely calcified, and who pays a price for it. Jim Gaffigan, America’s favorite comedian, plays US Attorney Paul Markham, one of the two men Kennedy first trusted his story with. One especially interesting choice is Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption’s Byron Hadley) as Robert McNamara. Brown makes the weedy nerd, who tried to run the Vietnam war on stats, into a powerfully intimidating presence. (See below.) Bruce Dern as Joe Kennedy, Ted’s wheelchair-bound father, is especially good with just a handful of scenes and barely three lines. Of all the characters who hold Ted in contempt, it’s Dern’s Joe Kennedy that packs the hardest punch.

The star, and the performer who makes the whole thing work, is Aussie actor Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy. Clarke’s Kennedy is profoundly galling—a cocktail of impotent resentment and entitlement, vulnerability and grandstanding, loyalty and bottomless dishonesty. He’s also stupid. Some stretches of the middle of the film play like black comedy, as if this were a real life political scandal created by the Coen brothers. Kennedy claims to have a concussion and to be on sedatives. “Did anyone actually consult a doctor?” one of his staffers says when a New York Times reporter immediately sniffs out the deception. When old Kennedy stalwarts enter the picture to lend their help to “protect the senator”—a phrase that grows creepier the more it is repeated—genuinely capable men like Robert McNamara seem barely able to conceal their disdain for Kennedy, especially as his lies and miscalculations begin to pile up.

Chappaquiddick’s Ted Kennedy lives in the shadow of three older brothers, all dead, all more favored by his once powerful father Joe, and while the film makes this clear right from the opening credits, it doesn’t attempt to make this an explanation or excuse. It’s simply part of who Ted Kennedy is, as much as his sailboat regattas and faithful buttkissers, and what the film dramatizes is how he chooses to live with that.

What we see him do is avoid reality by walking away from the accident and refusing to report it for nine hours, shift blame by laying the burden to report the accident on Gargan and Markham, and scramble to place his contradictory half-truths and lies in the order most advantageous to him. While he talks a lot about doing “the right thing,” it’s only talk. He even comes close to using the phrase “alternative facts” at one point and, at the end, offhandedly says “I don’t know what’s right anymore.” And he never passes up an opportunity to make the death of Mary Jo Kopechne through his own negligence broader systemic problems, about his family’s legacy, about him. When he asks Gargan to prepare a resignation for him ahead of a live TV statement, he discards it and instead tries to raise political support from his viewers. Kopechne’s parents watch in silence.

And that team of capable people does rally to protect the senator. From the local sheriff to insiders in the Massachusetts DMV to former cabinet members, a Yankee good ol’ boy network comes to the aid of this shortsighted, petulant, deceitful man-child and tries to help him escape the consequences of his actions. It’s as well-crafted a depiction of the rot in our political system as we’re likely to get, so we should learn from it.

But, importantly, it’s not just a story of a crooked politician and the mafia-like cabal of enablers that kept him in office, it’s a story about the voters. The film’s sting is in its finale, as archival man-on-the-street interviews show Massachusetts voters considering the story and, mostly, saying that they would reelect Kennedy. And they did, over and over again.

Chappaquiddick’s most important lesson seems, to me, to be that while political corruption is inevitable, and there will always be Ted Kennedys, the reason it’s inevitable and the reason they stick around is because we allow them to. Gargan, Markham, McNamara, and the others were the most visible parts of the coverup, but Ted Kennedy’s real enablers were us.

Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity

One of my favorite series of books right now is the Penguin Monarchs, an ongoing set of short biographies of (almost) every ruler of England since the tenth century. The series includes forty small, handsomely designed matching hardbacks with custom jacket art and, underneath, the relevant monarch’s signature embossed and gilded. The dynasties are color-coded in bands across the spines. No set of books could have been more carefully calculated to appeal to me. It’s a little short on the Anglo-Saxons and Danes—including only Athelstan, whose story is excellently retold by Tom Holland; Æthelred, a forthcoming volume by Richard Abels, a biographer of Alfred the Great; Cnut; and Edward the Confessor—but otherwise wonderful.

elizabeth penguin monarchs.jpg

The series has also interested me because the books are so short—90-120 pages maximum for the body of the text, with a few pages of endnotes or further reading and a small index. For some of these rulers, the relative dearth of sources lends itself to a terse, concise treatment. Despite the immense power he wielded, Cnut, for example, simply goes missing from the available historical record for years at a time, so that an honest biographer must pass over large parts of the man’s life in silence.

But for other monarchs, especially those nearer the present, the writers’ questions must be different: How do I get everything in? or, better, How do I get in enough to suggest the whole picture without leaving out so much that I do violence to the subject? which is really two interlocking concerns.

It’s a tricky balance, and I think of the eighteen volumes from the Penguin Monarchs I’ve read so far, none has managed it quite as well as Helen Castor’s Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity. In this brisk, elegantly written life, Castor covers all the major conflicts, events, and personalities of the queen’s life and reign, having taken as her organizing principle Elizabeth’s insecurity or, put another, slightly more psychological way, her anxiety. And justly so—Castor begins with the execution of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, shortly after Elizabeth’s birth.

When the present queen ascended the throne in 1952, prime minister Winston Churchill noted that she, “like her predecessor,” Elizabeth I, “did not pass her childhood in any certain expectation of the Crown.” Indeed, that is one of the attractions and points of interest of the lives of both women. But it’s an otherwise superficial parallel. Elizabeth I lost her mother to the axe on her own father’s orders when she was only three months old. Through her girlhood her father, his cronies, and parliament strove publicly to declare her legally a bastard and deprive her of the rights of succession. As a teenager she had to duck and weave through a series of political and religious upheavals, first one direction under her younger brother Edward, then another under her elder sister, the Catholic Queen Mary. She was, on top of everything, a woman in a world driven by men. By the time she came unexpectedly to the throne aged 25, she was already a veteran, a canny survivor, a hunted outsider, and she brought those instincts to a position of immense but tenuous power.

Castor takes these early circumstances and deftly builds a character study of an Elizabeth defined by her insecurities. Furthermore, she does so without resorting to cheap psychoanalysis, romanticism, or any more guesswork than necessary with such a famously reticent subject, a woman whose mottoes included Video et taceo—“I see and keep silent.” Elizabeth, as Castor depicts her, is both calculating and guarded; keenly, almost painfully conscious of public image and political theatre, which she uses to her own advantage and for her own survival; silent on her father’s role in her mother’s death, but willing to use his memory to shore up her power; alive to the dangers of suitors, rivals, fanatics like the Puritans among her own subjects, and larger predators like the King of Spain, and active in espionage to forearm against these threats; heavily reliant upon a tiny handful of totally trusted advisers for political advice, military intelligence, and emotional support; and cautious in the extreme, preferring procrastination and purposeful inertia to rash decision making. Not for nothing could she be painted calmly resting her hand on a globe while storms wreck Spanish fleets outside her window, or wearing a magnificently tailored dress with a coiled viper on her sleeve and her cape covered in eyes and ears—a powerful and deadly queen of spies.

Throughout Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity, Castor shows us these character traits in action, but in no crisis are they more pronounced than during the long imprisonment of Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. For a book of this size, Castor gives a remarkably clear and understandable synopsis of the events that pitted these two women against each other, and when the fatal moment comes and Elizabeth signs Mary’s death warrant, the reader almost feels her desperation at having been forced into such a decision.

Castor handles all of this very well, but I would, perhaps, like to have seen more of a moral reckoning with Elizabeth’s execution of Mary beyond the quandary into which Elizabeth was forced. The Penguin Monarchs volume on her elder sister Mary points out that while she could have had Elizabeth executed as a threat, she did not, and that Elizabeth, though she hemmed and hawed, did not scruple to spare her cousin when the time came. That’s a striking contrast, and a potentially damaging one. I would also have liked to see more on Elizabeth’s preemptive invasion of Ireland and some of England’s early efforts at colonization in Virginia. But I would hate to see such a trim, carefully constructed narrative bogged down by extra side stories.

Otherwise, I have no complaints. This short biography is fast-paced, readable, well written, and insightful. It’s a model of the kind of historical writing Herbert Butterfield described in the quotation I shared recently: “The historian is never more himself than when he is searching his mind for a general statement that shall in itself give the hint of its own underlying complexity.” Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity, in under a hundred pages, gives the reader a real sense of the Tudor era’s complexity and danger and a sympathetic portrait of a sophisticated, secretive, and great queen. It’s magnificently done.

Do check it out if you can get ahold of it, and look into the other volumes of this excellent series.