Neil Armstrong, in memoriam

Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) aboard the lunar module after his first walk on the moon.

Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) aboard the lunar module after his first walk on the moon.

I wrote the following post for a now defunct website following Neil Armstrong’s death seven years ago at the age of 82. I repost it here, lightly emended, for the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s first steps on the moon tomorrow. —JMP

I had a poster on the wall beside my bunkbed showing the planets—Pluto included, back then—in their orbits around the sun. I had more toy space shuttles than I could keep track of, and enough booster rockets and rust-orange external tanks to launch all of them into orbit above our trampoline. I went to Space Camp, ate dehydrated ice cream in vacuum-sealed packaging, and wore my blue NASA jumpsuit and pilot wings to school. I wanted to be an astronaut.

And when I thought of “astronaut,” I thought of him.

Neil Armstrong died this weekend at the age of 82, just over 43 years after taking man’s first steps on the moon. It was that moment and those words—broadcast worldwide on television—that cemented him forever as The Astronaut.

But he wasn’t just an astronaut. He was a few weeks shy of his 39th birthday when he landed the Eagle in the Sea of Tranquility, and the vast majority of those previous years he had spent behind the stick in hundreds of planes. He learned to fly before he got his driver’s license and, after joining the Navy, became a test pilot. As the horrific opening chapter of Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff makes clear, testing aircraft was one of the most hazardous and demanding jobs in the US military. Equipment malfunction or failure was part of the job, and pilot error, even among the coolest, most daring pilots in the country, could kill a man even when everything else went right.

And Armstrong was one of the coolest and most collected of those pilots. Though he declined to be interviewed for the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, in the film his fellow Apollo astronauts speak of his bravery and cool. Archival test footage—which shows Armstrong ejecting from a flaming military prototype just above the ground, seconds before the vehicle crashes and explodes—amply back up his reputation for courage.

He was born to do his work. “Pilots take no special joy in walking,” he wrote, “pilots like flying.” And it was as a pilot that he approached the crowning moment of his career and of the space program. “The exciting part for me, as a pilot, was the landing on the moon. . . . Walking on the lunar surface was very interesting, but it was something we looked on as reasonably safe and predictable. So the feeling of elation accompanied the landing rather than the walking.”

He returned home a hero, and remained a hero the rest of his life. He retired from NASA and worked as an educator, teaching aerospace engineering and devoting himself just as wholly to that as he had to his career in the Navy and the space program. “I am, and ever will be,” he said, “a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer.”

He avoided the limelight, increasingly so as the years went by, declining interviews and attention from the media. He even stopped giving out autographs after learning that scalpers were hawking his signature for exorbitant amounts of money.

As a child, I didn’t know much of that and wouldn’t have understood if I had. I was obsessed with Armstrong for strictly one mission and one moment and wanted to emulate him, though I never saw him on TV. I had to content myself with photos in my many books about space and NASA, and the black and white footage I saw when Apollo 11 was commemorated every year. I think that added to his legend for me—he was the man who walked on the moon, the first to achieve all my astronaut dreams, and then he disappeared.

Now I understand, and my childlike worship has matured into real admiration as a result—Armstrong was humble.

As far back as Cicero and Dante, writers have imagined the awe that must come with seeing Earth for what it is, in the context of all creation. How would man, such a tiny creature, feel about himself upon seeing that his home and all he knows and loves is hardly bigger than himself against the backdrop of the universe? For a wise man, the experience should be humbling.

Neil Armstrong knew that humility. He experienced what the ancients could only imagine. Standing on the surface of the moon in 1969, the aviator, astronaut, engineer, and representative of all mankind to outer space looked up at home. “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant,” he said. “I felt very, very small.”

Beyond his courage, his cool, and his willingness to risk all in the pursuit of his mission, that humility is why Armstrong is a hero—and why he will remain one.

Storybook war


On this day in 1863, elements of Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and elements of the Union Army of the Potomac, under the still new command of George Meade, clashed on the hills north of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This meeting engagement would concentrate both armies into the hills and farmland around the town and, by its end on July 3, become the biggest, bloodiest battle fought in North America.

To commemorate the battle I’ve been reading Cain at Gettysburg, a 2012 novel by Ralph Peters and the first in a five-book series concluding with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Peters tells the story from multiple points of view on both sides, from Lee and Meade and their subordinates to the sergeants and privates doing the fighting, and is particularly good at evoking the mixed emotions—the sudden and jarring confluences of excitement and horror, irritation and affection, exhilaration and pathos—that characterize battle. It’s excellent so far.

I wanted to point out this passage that I read last night. It’s narrated from the point of view of a German immigrant private, a utopian socialist and idealist who fled Europe for the United States after military defeat in the revolutions of 1848. Now serving in the 26th Wisconsin, as his regiment passes through Gettysburg on the way to the line on the first day of battle he sees a collection of Confederate prisoners. Peters writes:

For all his professed hatred of those who had forced war upon the country, Schwertlein empathized with the captive soldiers. He had never been a prisoner, but he knew only too well how men felt when they gave all they had, yet were condemned to failure. War was a sorrier business than storybooks told.
— Ralph Peters, Cain at Gettysburg

That last line is the stinger in the passage.

It also neatly expresses a large part of the trajectory of my own interests, studies, and writing. Like a lot of young boys, I became interested in military history through stories of heroes—brave men worth emulating. I still believe in those, and believe wholeheartedly in emulating the great departed (as I’ve written before, Lee is one of mine), but my studies have sobered me on war proper. I’ve learned that the glory of war is like the light of the moon—a reflection of something else, in this case the reflected glory of the handful of men who accomplish great things in those awful circumstances. Our admiration is itself a giveaway. Why else would heroism stand out if it weren’t against the odds and in spite of every conceivable misery—and the scads more modern man has spent all his energies creating?

I mention this because over the course of the holiday week we’ll get plenty of rah-rah, support-the-troops sentimentality without a lot of consideration of what it is we’re supporting or why they need support. (Or, if you really want to play with fire, whether we should.) The flagwaving, fireworks, Lee Greenwood, and beer commercials are fine, but absent a sense of the misery and tragedy of war—its barely fathomable sorriness—such commemoration will only give us storybook images. And, what is more, we won’t understand any side, even our own.

For my part, I’ve tried to convey a little of all this in my own Civil War novel, Griswoldville: what the war was like, how it wore men out and used them up, destroyed them body and soul, and just what it’s like to lose—something our success-obsessed culture can hardly conceive of, much less understand.

Cain at Gettysburg does it exceptionally well. Check it out.

Midway trailer reaction

Dick Best’s squadron of SBD Dauntless bombers dives toward the Japanese carriers in Roland Emmerich’s  Midway

Dick Best’s squadron of SBD Dauntless bombers dives toward the Japanese carriers in Roland Emmerich’s Midway

A new teaser trailer for Roland Emmerich’s forthcoming historical action film Midway dropped this morning. I first heard about the project last year and, despite a basic reaction of Oh no, decided to reserve judgment. This trailer hasn’t done much to change my initial reaction, but I am still withholding judgment. We’ll see.

The Battle of Midway is a seminal moment in American military history and the course of the Second World War. It deserves a serious, sober dramatization that will convey the seriousness of the Japanese threat, the courage of the sailors and aviators involved, something of the longterm consequences of the victory—and, of course, the terrible cost.

So I’m in favor of a new Midway film—the Charlton Heston Midway, which I’ve never seen all the way through, came out 43 years ago—especially given the potential of modern special effects to simulate something like the incineration of the Akagi.

However, I’m not sure Roland Emmerich is the best person to handle this story. In fact I’m pretty sure he’s not. He’s helmed some of the worst big-budget schlock Hollywood has had to offer for a quarter century. He made the climate change Chicken Little fables The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, the misbegotten historical adventure 10,000 BC, went down the Oxfordian conspiracy rabbithole with Anonymous, and is most famous for his mindless sci-fi crowdpleasers like Independence Day and the American Godzilla. Even what I think is his best movie, The Patriot, is a ridiculously simplistic retelling of the Revolution in the South that’s riddled with falsehood.

So I’m not terribly optimistic.

All that said, like my initial reaction to the first real trailer for Tolkien, I’m just going to list a few thoughts:

midway poster.jpg
  • After all my negativity about Emmerich, there are some definite wins in the casting, especially Woody Harrelson as Admiral Nimitz. Harrelson was great as Texas Ranger Maney Gault in The Highwaymen, which I loved, so I look forward to him playing a similarly legendary figure again.

  • The first half of the trailer covers a lot of Pearl Harbor ground, with a lot of similar shots—CGI Japanese torpedo planes zipping through battleship row, fighters strafing people on the ground, and even the departure of Jimmy Doolittle’s squadron of B-25 Mitchells for the first bombing of Japan. Two of my favorite historical movies of the last few years—Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, for my thoughts on which click here and here—cover almost exactly the same events but do so in radically different ways. If Midway is going to double up on some of the material Pearl Harbor covered, I hope it’s significantly more different than what we’ve got in this trailer.

  • Aaron Eckhart plays Doolittle, which could be quite good, and some publicity stills show him in China after the raid on Tokyo. But again—just how much does this film cover before it gets to Midway?

  • Lots and lots of CGI, not all of it impressive looking. One doesn’t have to go as far as Christopher Nolan did with practical effects on Dunkirk, which gave that film such a spare, austere look, but some detectable real planes and ships would be nice—and help convince our brains that we’re not watching a cartoon.

  • My wife and I just rewatched Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which is a real hoot. Nick Jonas looks exactly the same here.

  • This film also features two alumni of my favorite underappreciated historical film, The Alamo—Dennis Quaid (Sam Houston there, Bull Halsey here) and Patrick Wilson (William Barret Travis there, US naval intelligence officer Edwin Layton here).

  • I’m intrigued to get a bit of the personal life of Dick Best, the divebomber pilot who dropped a bomb into the elevator of the Akagi. He’s played by Ed Skrein and Mandy Moore (familiar to me, many times over, as Rapunzel) plays his wife. Done well this could lend some depth to the often anonymous men who fight America’s wars. But given Emmerich’s track record of developing romantic relationships—or any kind of human relationship—I’m withholding judgment.

  • Best’s dive toward the Japanese fleet, which we get snippets of at the end of the trailer, knotted my stomach. So, mission accomplished there.

  • A number of other figures from the battle—ordinary pilots and sailors who did incredible things—are listed in the cast elsewhere online, men like Wade McClusky and George Gay, who survived their flights to attack the Japanese fleet, and Eugene Lindsey, who did not. I hope Midway does them justice.

You can watch the teaser trailer for Midway embedded in this post above. The film comes out November 8, timed for Veterans Day.

Constantine on City of Man Podcast

The City of Man Podcast’s Ancient Aside series returns with its tenth episode. In this episode, regular host Coyle Neal and I cover the life and reign of Constantine, one of the most consequential and controversial figures of the late Roman Empire—and in all of Western history. We talk about the post-Diocletian political context of Constantine’s career, his personal background, his military campaigns, his conversion to and patronage of Christianity, and much, much more.

You can see this episode’s shownotes here. 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!

Leaving things out

Last year I wrote a short post about proportion in the arts, inspired by an offhand answer Jerry Seinfeld gave about turning down $5 million per episode for one more season of “Seinfeld.” There, I quoted the great poet, critic, and translator of Dante John Ciardi, who in the notes to his Inferno wrote that:

Poetry is, among other things, the art of knowing what to leave out.
— John Ciardi

A side note: Is there another phrase that evokes quite what “leaving things out” does? It suggests making things manageable—in all kinds of ambiguous ways. What I’m driving at in this post, of course, is leaving things out to get at the true shape of something, rather as I’m leaving things out of my diet right now to return to what I hope is a truer shape of me.

When I learned that the great historian of modern Europe and Churchill biographer John Lukacs had died a few weeks ago, I revisited a short book—a bound essay, really—he wrote for ISI’s Student Guide series, A Student’s Guide to the Study of History. There, in a passage describing the simple version of the historian’s process of preparing and gathering material, I read this footnote:

No matter how detailed and assiduous, your research will never be complete. The nineteenth-century monographic ideal was that certifiable historian who, having read every document and every writing related to his topic, is able to produce a complete and definitive history of it. This is no longer possible—because of the possibility that new documents, new treatments, and more publications about his topic, many in different places and languages of the world, may yet appear. (Of course some histories are more “definitive” than others. But never absolutely so.)

And then, on the next page, as Lukacs begins to explain the triage of sorting the material an historian has collected, he includes this wonderful parenthetical:

It is a great mistake to use everything.
— John Lukacs

Precisely because everything is not up to the same standard, is not relevant, is not part of the story you’re trying to tell. This is a succinct warning away from the kitchen sink approach, which every one of us has encountered at least once in some 800-page book, fiction or non-fiction.

Which brings me back to Ciardi: the art in poetry and history, as in so much of life, from cookery and dieting (see above) to marriage, is in choosing. This entails constraint (adherence to form), restraint (rejection of self-indulgence), and commitment (sticking with it even though you’ve just made it harder on yourself), and these in turn entail a certain amount of courage (say what you mean!) and discipline (mean what you say!).

Leaving things out—choosing—shapes both you and your art and will create order. And contrary to the modern suspicion that order only crushes creativity, it will in reality “give room for good things to run wild.”

Take a moment to read this detailed LA Times obit for Lukacs. He led a remarkable life, from surviving the Holocaust in Hungary to working as an historical adviser on Darkest Hour. And pick up one of his books sometime. I recommend The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler, which I’ve recommended here before along with a few of his other books.

Weaver on Lee

Robert E. Lee (1807-70) shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1865

Robert E. Lee (1807-70) shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1865

While I’m thinking of Richard Weaver, let me recommend his essay “Lee the Philosopher,” originally published in the Georgia Review in 1948 but available online—with a few glaring text recognition errors—here. Writing at a time when the United Nations was brand new and Stalin and Mao’s project of overthrowing the Chinese government had not yet succeeded, Weaver reflects on what a few of Robert E. Lee’s gnomic sayings reveal about the depths of that most handsome and inscrutable man.

One of the deepest, and most poignant, is Lee’s famous remark—recorded in a few slightly different versions—made from the heights overlooking the battlefield at Fredericksburg: “It is well this is terrible; otherwise we should grow fond of it.”


Weaver in “Lee the Philosopher”:

What is the meaning? It is richer than a Delphic saying.

Here is a poignant confession of mankind’s historic ambivalence toward the institution of war, its moral revulsion against the immense destructiveness, accompanied by a fascination with the “greatest of all games.” As long as people relish the idea of domination, there will be those who love this game. It is fatuous to say, as is being said now, that all men want peace. Men want peace part of the time, and part of the time they want war. Or, if we may shift to the single individual, part of him wants peace and another part wants war, and it is upon the resolution of this inner struggle that our prospect of general peace depends, as MacArthur so wisely observed upon the decks of the Missouri. The cliches of modern thought have virtually obscured this commonplace of human psychology, and world peace programs take into account everything but this tragic flaw in the natural man—the temptation to appeal to physical superiority. There is no political structure which knaves cannot defeat, and subtle analyses of the psyche may prove of more avail than schemes for world parliament. In contrast with the empty formulations of propagandists, Lee’s saying suggests the concrete wisdom of a parable.

Take some time to read the whole essay. You can read it at the link above or a few other places online, or collected in The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, an insightful and beautifully written compilation of pieces on various aspects of historical Southern culture, politics, and belief.

And if you’re wondering why, after all this time, people are still invested in Lee and find him fascinating, what strange deeper resonance he has within the mind of the South, here’s Weaver again in The Southern Tradition at Bay, the doctoral thesis that eventually became his first published book:

Military history and autobiography bulk very large in Southern ‘literature,’ and no one acquainted with the history of the South will omit the influence of the soldier. Indeed, an inventory of the mind of the soldier is very nearly an inventory of the Southern mind.

Weaver, Chesterton, and the inside of history


I’ve been revisiting a few passages from past reading that have meant and continue to mean a lot to me, bridging as they do the two things to which I’ve devoted my life: history and writing fiction.

From GK Chesterton’s 1925 book The Everlasting Man, a passage I’m almost certain I’ve shared here before:

No wise man will wish to bring more long words into the world. But it may be allowable to say that we need a new thing; which may be called psychological history. I mean the consideration of what things meant in the mind of a man, especially an ordinary man; as distinct from what is defined or deduced merely from official forms or political pronouncements. I have already touched on it in such a case as the totem or indeed any other popular myth. It is not enough to be told that a tom-cat was called a totem; especially when it was not called a totem. We want to know what it felt like. . . . That is the sort of thing we need touching the nature of political and social relations. We want to know the real sentiment that was the social bond of many common men, as sane and as selfish as we are. What did soldiers feel when they saw splendid in the sky that strange totem that we call the Golden Eagle of the Legions? What did vassals feel about those other totems, the lions or the leopards upon the shield of their lord? So long as we neglect this subjective side of history, which may more simply be called the inside of history, there will always be a certain limitation on that science which can be better transcended by art. So long as the historian cannot do that, fiction will be truer than fact. There will be more reality in a novel; yes, even in a historical novel.

That parting shot is there to keep us historical novelists humble. It’s also hilarious.

From Richard Weaver’s essay “Up from Liberalism,” published in Modern Age in 1958:

In the meantime, I had started to study the cobwebs in my own corner, and I began to realize that the type of education which enables one to see into the life of things had been almost entirely omitted from my program. More specifically, I had been reading extensively in the history of the American Civil War, preferring first-hand accounts by those who had actually borne the brunt of it as soldiers and civilians; and I had become especially interested in those who had reached some level of reflectiveness and had tried to offer explanations of what they did or the manner in which they did it. Allen Tate has in one of his poems the line “There is more in killing than commentary.” The wisdom of this will be seen also by those who study the killings in which whole nations are the killers and the killed, namely, wars. To put this in a prose statement: The mere commentary of a historian will never get you inside the feeling of a war or any great revolutionary process. For that, one has to read the testimonials of those who participated in it on both sides and in all connections; and often the best insight will appear in the casual remark of an obscure warrior or field nurse or in the effort of some ill-educated person to articulate a feeling.

Weaver isn’t directly concerned with fiction here, but his sentiments broadly parallel those of Chesterton above. I’m reminded as well of the late great Sir John Keegan’s introduction to The Face of Battle, his seminal examination of that “more in killing,” a heavy influence on my own grad work at Clemson:

Historians, traditionally and rightly, are expected to ride their feelings on a tighter rein than the man of letters can allow himself. One school of historians at least, the compilers of the British Official History of the First World War, have achieved the remarkable feat of writing an exhaustive account of one of the world’s greatest tragedies without the display of any emotion at all.

Per Weaver and Keegan, you can get a bone-deep understanding from a memoir like Sledge’s With the Old Breed, Fraser’s Quartered Safe out Here, or Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier that you can’t from top-down histories of the campaigns those authors lived through. They are less concerned with how these things happened but are blistering hot answers to the central question: What was it like?

From Cass Sunstein’s 2015 Atlantic essay “Finding Humanity in Gone With the Wind”:

Nonetheless, Gone With the Wind should not be mistaken for a defense of slavery or even the Confederacy. Mitchell is interested in individuals rather than ideologies or apologetics. She parodies the idea of “the Cause,” and she has no interest in “States’ Rights.” She is elegiac not about politics, but about innocence, youth, memory, love (of all kinds), death, and loss (which helps make the book transcend the era it depicts). . . .

Gone With the Wind is a novel, not a work of history, and what it offers is only a slice of what actually happened. But as Americans remember the war and their own history, they have an acute need for novels, which refuse to reduce individual lives to competing sets of political convictions. That is an important virtue, even if one set of convictions is clearly right and another clearly wrong. In fact that very refusal can be seen as a political act, and it ranks among the least dispensable ones.

To tie these disparate commentators loosely together, Keegan—a great military historian who, because of a childhood illness and resulting disability, never personally saw combat—writes in The Face of Battle that “the central question” of the military historian is “What is it like to be in a battle?” A corollary question is “its subjective supplementary, ‘How would I behave in a battle?’” This question moves the discussion immediately from facts to imagination. While both the rigorous histories—Chesterton’s “official forms and political pronouncements,” Weaver’s “mere commentary of a historian,” Sunstein’s “ideologies [and] apologetics”—and the “psychological” ones built “to get you inside the feeling” of a time and place are both concerned with conveying truth through narrative, one is better at outlining events from on high and the other will convey Keegan’s “central question”: What was it like?

This tension runs right through both academic historical work, especially narrative history, and the creation of fictional or based-on-a-true-story narratives set in the past. Compare what I’ve written here before about the perspective war movies take.

The crucial thing all four of these writers drive at is understanding. They want us to get into—in Chesterton’s wonderful phrase—“the inside of history.” Good fiction performs that role heroically, enlivening the imagination and bringing the reader into a lost world the way nonfiction rarely can.

Note that I’ve chosen to describe this as understanding and not the milquetoast modern virtue of empathy, with its hints of uncritical acceptance, tolerance, and fundamental relativism. This is a fine distinction, but an important one, one that could carry the weight of quite a long essay. Perhaps someday. Understanding is critical; understanding is discriminating; and understanding is compassionate. It can be all of these things because it turns willingly toward what it looks at and receives it as knowledge. It is not the apathetic blind eye of empathy. Look no further than Sunstein’s essay on Gone With the Wind, in which he critiques the novel and its author at length while still holding it up as a window into understanding a different time and place—two different times and places, in fact, viewing the novel as an artifact of Margaret Mitchell’s time.

To understand all may not be to forgive all, but it is to touch brains and to see a shared humanity—common weaknesses, foibles, and, just occasionally, virtues—with people who are deeply unlike us, people we are tempted to dismiss. That applies to both the living and the dead. And if, as I’ve written earlier this semester, bigotry is ultimately a failure of imagination, we need all the good historical fiction we can get.

Stories in the End

Just this morning I had a talk with my dad about stress, fatigue, fretfulness, and frustration and their unlikely but surest antidote—gratitude. It was a good reminder, and brought to mind Cicero’s line that gratitude “is not only the greatest of virtues, but the mother of all others.” That line should be this blog’s motto, by now.

I mention this because I think paying tribute, honoring a memory, is one of the best ways to express gratitude. It’s that kind of profound gratitude that pervades Stories in the End, a book just released by my friend Jay Eldred.

Stories in the End is a curious book. It’s narrated by Jay’s co-author, Tom Poole, a US Navy veteran and sportsman who died in 2017 at the age of 98. He tells his story in a series of letters to a young relative named “B.” Tom’s letters to B. take the reader through his life from his boyhood to old age.

Tom was a native of Goldsboro, North Carolina, but moved with his parents to New Bern when he was two and lived there—minus his years abroad in the Navy—for 96 years. There he met and married his wife Amber, a story told with great affection and warmth.

The bulk of Stories in the End covers Tom’s years in the Navy, particularly his extensive and harrowing service in World War II. He joined the Navy before the war and thus was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He saw action at Casablanca and in the Pacific and was part of the Operation Neptune fleet that supported the D-day landings in Normandy in June 1944. The day after D-day his ship, the destroyer USS Meredith, struck a mine. She sank while being towed back to England for repairs. “That night was the worst night in my life,” he writes. “Worse even than Pearl Harbor, worse than the day Amber died in 2006. We floated in the water—in the dark and in the fuel.”

He survived all of these incidents and spent another twelve years in the Navy—including what must have been a nice time as head of naval recruiting in his hometown—retiring in 1957 and taking a job first at the New Bern water plant and then Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point as a civilian contractor and hunting, fishing, and turtling. His postwar letters are full of the details of this life—his successful effort to negotiate a pay raise for his employees, the art (and a little of the science) of fishing and trapping, and visits with friends and family.

I mentioned Jay and the curiosity of his project up front because I wanted to draw attention to his accomplishment with Stories in the End. Jay based the book on audio recordings of his conversations with Tom, which Tom permitted on two conditions: that he never know when or how he was being recorded and that Jay not begin writing the book until after he had died. Jay followed both of Tom’s strictures and, consulting boxes of documents and a few written reminiscences left behind by Tom, has produced a book that genuinely feels like conversations with Tom. By the end, I was sad to know he would be leaving, that this would be our last chat.

The narrative voice is perfect—warm, winsome, and by turns funny and profoundly moving. I’ve already quoted his terse summary of the night he spent in the Channel after the sinking of the USS Meredith. Here’s the moment at Pearl Harbor when he emerges from the USS Raleigh’s boiler room:

I’d wanted to make the Navy my career. Of course, Pearl Harbor kind of decided that for me. I think Pearl Harbor was like a bad dream. There was a lot of concussion and a lot of confusion, people running here and people running there, bodies in the water and ships on fire. The Utah was tied next to us and had rolled over. I knew there were men trapped inside.

And later, as the second wave of Japanese attackers come:

The Japanese flew so close I saw one shake his fist at us and could see he was wearing a red tassel. I shook my first back at him and wished I’d had a shotgun. Instead, we were sitting dead in the water. We kept firing though, and were credited with downing six planes. We were the lucky ones, too.

Tom’s memories brim with such details—there are many, many more remarkable moments not only from his war years but from the rest of his life, and I want to leave plenty for y’all to discover.

Tom’s story is simply and extraordinarily told, a credit both to Tom for his storytelling abilities and the incredible life he led, and to Jay for the difficult task of shaping audio recordings into such a solid and compelling narrative. The effort—a sign of the gratitude Jay has brought to this project—has paid off. Stories in the End is a loving, grateful tribute both to a generation—fewer than half a million World War II veterans are still living, the book reminds us—and to an individual man, an exemplar of hard, humble work, duty and loyalty, and faith.

The Highwaymen on City of Man Podcast

Kevin Costner as Texas Ranger Frank Hamer in  The Highwaymen

Kevin Costner as Texas Ranger Frank Hamer in The Highwaymen

Used to be, you had to have talent to get published. Now you just have to shoot people.
— Maney Gault in The Highwaymen

Last week I sat down to talk with my friend Coyle of the City of Man Podcast. Our topic of discussion was the new Netflix film The Highwaymen, directed by John Lee Hancock and starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson. The film, set in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana in the spring of 1934, tells the story of Frank Hamer (Costner) and Maney Gault (Harrelson), retired Texas Rangers tasked with tracking down and killing legendary spree criminals Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.

The Highwaymen dramatizes a great true story in (broadly) accurate ways and poses some interesting questions about crime, law and order, the role of force in upholding the law, progressive modern assumptions about crime and civilization, the idolization of celebrities—even criminals—and whether our sins are our own fault or forced upon us by our circumstances. Coyle and I had a great time discussing the film, the history, the themes and questions raised by the story, and more.

The only thing I wish we could’ve dug into deeper was more specifics on accuracy and authenticity. But who knows—I may resurrect Historical Movie Monday for a Highwaymen post somewhere down the road. The Highwaymen is a solid movie and I hope y’all will both watch it and enjoy our discussion of it.

You can find the City of Man Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and other fine podcasting platforms. You can find a link to this episode’s shownotes here. I’ve also embedded the episode in a Stitcher player in this post. Please listen in, and I hope y’all enjoy!

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.