What's wrong, Chesterton?

February, a whole month of recurrent sickness—for me and my kids—heavy work projects, and terrible weather, has also accidentally turned into GK Chesterton month on my blog. I’ve posted on his attitude toward argument and controversy and the lack of any real controversy in his world—and ours—and I also looked at his enviable ability to laugh at himself. I’ll end the month with a tiny bit of Chesterton detective work.

G.K. Chesterton c. 1909

G.K. Chesterton c. 1909

Yesterday, a colleague pointed me toward this post on the most frequently misquoted Christian writers. Chesterton was on there for a number of quotes, misquotes, and apocryphal sayings, perhaps the most famous of which was this:

In answer to a newspaper’s question, “What is Wrong With the World?”  G. K. Chesterton wrote in with a simple answer: “Dear Sirs, I am.”

I’ve seen a couple different versions of this story with slight variations—sometimes Chesterton’s answer comes in response to a survey of journalists or something similar, sometimes it’s slightly wordier—but the gist is always the same, and it’s easy to see why it sticks around. It’s been quoted by present day evangelical writers as prominent as Tim Keller. It’s cheeky and succinct, worthy of a man who enjoyed his bon mots as much as his beer. But also not quite true.

If you want to confirm a quotation’s authenticity—and you should—it’s relatively easy, and this was easy to disprove, as there are plenty of places logging it as doubtful or inauthentic. Wikiquote includes it in its “misattributed” section on Chesterton’s page. The American Chesterton Society had a rather noncommittal post on the quotation a few years ago, as did a Chesterton enthusiast’s blog.

But as it happens, the latter blog post included a couple of important tidbits. First, it clarified the actual, correct wording of Chesterton’s reply:

In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question, “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.” Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby.

This, helpfully, provides a lot more context and explanation about what exactly Chesterton meant. It’s also a handy passage to plug into Google. But alas, nothing.

Second, the blogger’s post indicated that Chesterton’s letter came in response to another letter not from the Times, but from the Daily News—a newspaper founded by Charles Dickens, one of Chesterton’s literary heroes—and from a specific issue: August 16, 1905. I don’t know where the blogger dug this info up, but it was enough to go on. It turned out to be correct.

Having turned up nothing via Google, and beginning to suspect that this was either elaborately fabricated or a previously totally unavailable Chesterton essay, I searched for the Daily News itself. The paper merged with another in the 1910s and no longer exists, but a free trial of the British Newspaper Archive allowed me to look at digital scans of its entire archives and the specific issue of the paper noted in the blogger’s post.

And behold:

The  Daily News , August 16, 1905

The Daily News, August 16, 1905

Chesterton’s complete letter to the editor in response to “A Heretic,” and the germ of the oft-repeated misquotation, right there.

As I mentioned, I was flummoxed that this bit of Chesterton lore was unavailable anywhere online, especially since the misquoted version has proved so persistent and vexing. So I’ve transcribed the entire text of the letter and included it below so that the whole thing is available somewhere. I hope having the full text available will prove a good resource for anyone, like me, hunting for the source of that famous story. I’ve included a handful of hyperlinks to things that might clarify some of Chesterton’s allusions or asides.

Like all of Chesterton’s work, it’s amusing and thought-provoking. And despite coming early in his career—three years before his novel The Man Who Was Thursday, five before the book What’s Wrong with the World—and from a lost world—nine years before the First World War!—in many ways as alien to us now as the antebellum South, medieval Britain, or republican Rome, much of his concern is eerily prescient, particularly in an age of religious flabbiness, unease with the status quo, political strife, the squandering of inherited blessings, and increasingly insistent reliance on the State.

This was by no means a difficult bit of detective work—I’m no Father Brown—but I enjoyed the hunt, and I enjoyed reading a new bit of recovered GKC. I hope y’all enjoy and benefit from it as well.

* * * * *

From the Daily News, August 16, 1905

Sir,—I must warmly protest against people mistaking the uneasiness of “A Heretic” for a sort of pessimism. If he were a pessimist he would be sitting in an armchair with a cigar. It is only we optimists who can be angry.

Political or economic reform will not make us good and happy, but until this odd period nobody ever expected that they would.

One thing, of course, must be said to clear the ground. Political or economic reform will not make us good and happy, but until this odd period nobody ever expected that they would. Now, I know there is a feeling that Government can do anything. But if Government could do anything, nothing would exist except Government. Men have found the need of other forces. Religion, for instance, existed in order to do what law cannot do—to track crime to its primary sin, and the man to his back bedroom. The Church endeavoured to institute a machinery of pardon; the State has only a machinery of punishment. The State can only free society from the criminal; the Church sought to free the criminal from the crime. Abolish religion if you like. Throw everything on secular government if you like. But do not be surprised if a machinery that was never meant to do anything but secure external decency and order fails to secure internal honesty and peace. If you have some philosophic objection to brooms and brushes, throw them away. But do not be surprised if the use of the County Council water-cart is an awkward way of dusting the drawing-room.

In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.” Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby. But this original sin belongs to all ages, and is the business of religion. Is there something, as “Heretic” suggests, which belongs to this age specially, and is the business of reform? It is a dark matter, but I will make a suggestion.

Every religion, every philosophy as fierce and popular as a religion, can be regarded either as a thing that binds or a thing that loosens. A convert to Islam (say) can regard himself as one who must no longer drink wine; or he can regard himself as one who need no longer sacrifice to expensive idols. A man passing from the early Hebrew atmosphere to the Christian would find himself suddenly free to marry a foreign wife, but also suddenly and startlingly restricted in the number of foreign wives. It is self-evident, that is, that there is no deliverance which does not bring new duties. It is, I suppose, also pretty evident that a religion which boasted only of its liberties would go to pieces. Christianity, for instance, would hardly have eclipsed Judaism if Christians had only sat in the middle of the road ostentatiously eating pork.

Yet this is exactly what we are all doing now. The last great challenge and inspiration of our Europe was the great democratic movement, the Revolution. Everything popular and modern, from the American President to the gymnasium in Battersea Park, comes out of that. And this Democratic creed, like all others, had its two sides, the emancipation and the new bonds. Men were freed from the dogma of the divine right of Kings, but tied to the new dogma of the divine right of the community. The citizen was not bound to give titles to others, but was bound to refuse titles for himself. The new creed had its saints, like Washington and Hoche; it had its martyrs, it had even its asceticism.

Now to me, the devastating weakness of our time, the sin of the 19th century, was primarily this: That we chose to interpret the Revolution as a mere emancipation. Instead of taking the Revolution as meaning that democracy is the true doctrine, we have taken it as meaning that any doctrine is the true doctrine. Instead of the right-mindedness of the Republican stoics, we have the “broad-mindedness” of Liberal Imperialists. We have taken Liberty, because it is fun; we have left Equality and Fraternity, because they are duties and a nuisance. We have Liberty to be unequal. We have Liberty to be unfraternal. At the last we have Liberty to admire slavery. For this was the just and natural end of our mere “free-thinking”—the Tory Revival. Liberalism was supposed to mean liberty to believe in anything; it soon meant liberty to believe in Toryism. Democracy in losing the austerity of youth and its dogmas has lost all; it tends to be a mere debauch of mental self-indulgence, since by a corrupt and loathsome change, Liberalism has become liberality.—Yours, etc.,

G. K. Chesterton

The Early Church on City of Man Podcast

Yesterday the latest installment of the City of Man Podcast’s Ancient Asides series, in which I and regular host Coyle Neal discuss Roman political history, posted online. In this episode, Coyle and I discuss the first generations of Christianity as this obscure Eastern movement developed into a large new religion under the heel of Rome. You can listen here via the embedded Stitcher player, or on iTunes or any number of other fine podcasting apps. You can read our brief shownotes and reading recommendations at the Christian Humanist Radio Network homepage, here.

I always have a great time talking to Coyle, and this is an interesting and important topic, especially as we press forward in Roman history and the Empire begins to change. Enjoy!

O'Connor, Waugh, and Lewis on religion, comfort, and doubt

oconnor waugh banner.jpg

Flannery O’Connor on the suffering “caused by the doubts of those who want to believe,” from an otherwise undated 1959 letter collected in The Habit of Being:

 
What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.
— Flannery O'Connor
 

Powerful stuff, especially when you consider the severe physical suffering O’Connor lived through due to her lupus. The first two complete paragraphs of the letter:

I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do.

What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.

There’s a lot we could unpack here—cheap grace, doubt, growth, the dark night of the soul, the leap of faith, and more. But I’m particularly interested in O’Connor’s rejection of religion as a comfort. It’s a cross, not a blanket, and belief is work.

This brought to mind a passage from the famously prickly interview Evelyn Waugh gave to the BBC’s rather hostile interviewer on “Face to Face” in 1960. When questioned about his religious beliefs—especially his conversion to Catholicism—and what “the greatest gift in terms of tranquility or peace of mind or whatever” he had found in them, Waugh responded:

[Religion] isn’t a sort of lucky dip that you get something out of.
— Evelyn Waugh

Well, it isn’t a sort of lucky dip that you get something out of, you know. It’s hard without using pietistic language to explain, but it’s simply admitting the existence of God or dependence on God, your contact with God, the fact that everything in the world that’s good depends on Him. It isn’t a sort of added amenity of the Welfare State that you say, “Well, to all this, having made a good income, now I’ll have a little icing on top of religion.” It’s the essence of the whole thing.

Religion isn’t there for you to get something out of. That’s the Oprah model. It’s not about comfort or ease of mind, but about meaning. True religion is fundamental to our whole existence as dependents, prior to and above us, which is why, traditionally, seekers have come not as consumers looking for affirmation or a good fit but as supplicants looking for grace.

And, because I can’t keep him out of this blog for very long, here’s CS Lewis on a similar note:

In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth—only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.

As Lewis—who, as a veteran of the Western Front, knew what he was talking about—writes here, there is comfort to be had in faith generally and Christianity specifically, sure, but that’s not the point, and making it the point will lead us immediately astray. The comfort-obsessed soldier who meets constant disappointment was already a cliche in his day. No wonder then that in the United States, where religion has been commodified and turned into an interchangeable accessory, where affirmation is the point and the demand is for fewer demands, people are falling away. A faith with ease at its center is self-satisfied faith, and won’t even withstand discomfort, much less trial, tragedy, and despair. And this is to say nothing of those who come to religion because they already suffer and doubt.

Christians in particular are called to not to rest, tranquility, wellness, or, in the words of Waugh’s interviewer, “whatever,” but to suffer. Face that boldly and embrace it. After all, Jesus’s command was to “take up your cross and follow me,” and, lest we forget, the cross was an instrument of torture.

St. Thomas Aquinas, virtue, and fireplace implements

Coincidental to my post on Thomas Aquinas and charity in debate, I discovered this delightful post from Christ and Pop Culture about my second favorite Thomas story: "How to Practice Virtue (by Chasing Hookers Away with Red-Hot Pokers)." It's a fun introduction to some of the basics of virtue ethics as demonstrated early in the monastic career of the Angelic Doctor. Thomas, who came from a noble family in southern Italy, joined the new and controversial Order of Preachers or "Dominicans" against his family's wishes, so his brothers abducted him, locked him in a tower, and threw a prostitute into the room with him to test his commitment to his vow of chastity. Read the piece to learn how that ended.

I say this is my "second favorite Thomas story"; it used to be my favorite, but the reality of lecturing a classroom of sleepy students on Western Civ at 8:00 AM moved the one I recounted earlier this week—about his startling interruption of a banquet with the king of France—to the top. I usually hold students' interest even if I'm not exactly a flamboyant lecturer, so this story,  the one time I pound on the lectern and shout during the semester, always gets hilarious and entertaining reactions. For me, anyway.

I'm not saying it was aliens

Giorgio Tsoukalos on The History Channel's  Ancient Aliens . The pose that launched  a thousand memes .

Giorgio Tsoukalos on The History Channel's Ancient Aliens. The pose that launched a thousand memes.

This morning I read a very interesting essay at The Atlantic in which the author, after summarizing some widespread beliefs, related scientific data, and modern attempts to reconcile the data with the beliefs, recounts wrestling and coming to terms with his unbelief—in extraterrestrial intelligence. Aliens. 

The title of the piece, by Michael Clune, a professor of English at Case Western University, is "I Don't Believe in Aliens Anymore." Clune's primary interest is in finding meaning and significance in a universe in which humanity, as a conscious intelligence, is alone. And we almost certainly are. Clune notes that:

Humanity shouldn’t be surprised that we haven’t found aliens, because most likely there aren’t any.

Earlier this year, a group at the University of Oxford released a paper arguing that our knowledge of the universe and of math should lead us to assume that intelligent life is most probably an extremely rare event, depending on a series of fortuitous circumstances . . . that are so unlikely as to almost never happen. Humanity shouldn’t be surprised that we haven’t found aliens, because most likely there aren’t any.

This is a realization I had myself some years ago. If, as we are often assured, the chance of intelligent life evolving anywhere is so infinitesimally small, the odds so impossibly long, then how can we assume it has happened more than once? 

But this is, in fact, what a lot of people will say if asked about extraterrestrial life. It's become a platitude: "The universe is so big there just has to be other life out there." Some people even take such questions as an opportunity to show how very 'umble they can be, by turning the question back onto ourselves: "I think it's arrogant to believe we're alone in the universe." But if you accept the premises above—the vast and dangerous complexity of the universe, the fragility of the conditions where life could emerge, and, given everything else, the long odds of life actually appearing and evolving—you must return to the question: If we're alone, now what? 

That's the question that animates Clune's essay, and I recommend reading it. But it was an offhand expression, not even an argument or line of thought, that caught my attention near the end, in this line from the conclusion: "Now looking back on that moment from the perspective of the Oxford study’s revelation, I wonder if giving up gods and aliens will lead people to the weird singularity of the human mind." Gods and aliens, lumped together. This follows from Clune's introduction, in which he posits religion as an earlier, now outmoded attempt by humanity to find a cosmic Other with which to communicate and through which to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. 

I don't know anything about Clune's religious beliefs—if he has any, and he seems to dismiss religion, albeit gently, in his essay—but I am religious, and this passing turn of phrase affirmed something about belief in aliens that also occurred to me some time ago: Belief in aliens is a substitute religion, and aliens are substitute gods.

You don't have to dig far or be intimately familiar with believers to see this, and once you've had that realization, you can't unsee it. Enthusiasts of spiritual esoterica and belief in aliens have a religious fervency and conceive of aliens in very religious ways: guides, protectors, sometimes even creators. The premise of everything from Ancient Aliens to 2001: A Space Odyssey is that aliens are responsible for the greatest human achievements, the greatest human wisdom, and the greatest historical leaps forward. Alien encounters almost always take the structure of a religious experience, so much so that some of the believers who have gone farther down the rabbit hole speculate that religious experiences are in fact alien abductions. The "kinds" of close encounters pretty clearly mirror the kinds of religious experiences people have, whether simply seeing a miracle, having visions, directly encountering saints or angels, more intense encounters that leave physical marks, and, the most awesome of all, being caught up into the heavens for a beatific vision. These encounters change the often unwilling witnesses and they long to reconnect with the intelligences that came to them. One of the most famous alien abduction books, which you may remember being repeatedly shilled on Unsolved Mysteries in the early 90s, is even called Communion.

One way to view these correspondences is as two iterations of the same nonsense, the attitude Clune, more tactfully, seems to assume in his essay. As he writes, "human culture never left the non-secular world behind." Aliens and belief in them "were just a modern version of religious literature." The old temples aren't being torn down; new ones are going up. Whether it's aliens (but I'm not saying it's aliens) or abstractions like humanity, spirituality, nature, Progress or, the ultimate abstraction, the Universe, new gods are crowding in with the old. And aliens and God are hardly mutually exclusive—there are embarrassing Christian spins on all of these things. It may be the most widespread but least noted form of modern religious syncretism.

Spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison
— CS Lewis

Which brings me to my point. I do agree with Clune to an extent, especially about the non-existence of alien life. But I disagree that belief in aliens is simply one more sincere but vain attempt to find meaning through false mythologies; I think belief in aliens bespeaks a deep human need to believe that has gone awry. As CS Lewis put it in an entirely different context, "spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison." 

The answer to UFOs isn't to give up faith in every transcendent belief system as equally erroneous, but to take away the poison of conspiracy theory and substitute truth. That, as it happens, is the path to meaning.

Uproot evil in the fields you know

medieval plow.jpg

Alan Jacobs, a scholar and writer I particularly admire, has an interesting post on Tolkien and the possibility—nay, inevitability—of healing in his works. In discussing the way that "all victories over evil are contingent and limited and temporary . . . and the forgetfulness of all the races of Middle Earth tends to reinforce those limits," Jacobs quotes Gandalf from near the end of The Lord of the Rings

 
Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.
— Gandalf in The Return of the King
 

This is a frank, humble assessment of what people can do about evil. This has been on my mind a lot recently, both for longstanding reasons of my own and as I've been working over a post on the resilience of Marxism as an ideology despite its body count. Even beyond Marxism or leftism generally, people of all political persuasions tend to take concrete political or legal problems and abstract and universalize them immediately—as step one of the debate. All problems therefore become existential problems. All mistakes or disagreements become signs of fatal bad faith. All problems become problems that threaten the very fabric of the universe. You don't have to look far to find examples.

Gandalf's words here also happen to harmonize with a theme I've been mulling over for a work-in-progress: a novel about guilt and original sin, "a story with no good guy" as I've described it to a friend. What do to about evil—not just "systemic" evil, the activist concern du jour, or evil as it exists in the whole world, but evil in my own life? That's uncomfortably close. But a humble recognition that we can't solve all problems is the first step to solving some of them. Rather than aiming high, at unachievable universalist goals, find an evil in your neighborhood, something you can actually do something about, and face it. Or, as Admiral McRaven and Jordan Peterson have put it recently, "Make your bed" and "Clean your room."

Finally, also harmonizing with Gandalf, is this challenge from St. Paul that has goaded and bothered me since I rediscovered it last fall:

 
Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
— I Thessalonians 4:11-12
 

Jacobs concludes his post by reflecting on how "tricky" Gandalf's vision is: "neither . . . succumb to despair (like Denethor) nor indulge the presumptuous delusion that one’s victories can be everlasting, but rather . . . live, simply, in hope." If there's a more necessary countercultural message today than "lead a quiet life," "mind your own business," "uproot evil in the fields you know," and "live in hope," I don't know what it is.

St. Augustine on internet trolls

St. Augustine, weary of dealing with trolls.

St. Augustine, weary of dealing with trolls.

From his great work City of God, II, i: 

 
Will we ever come to an end of discussion and talk if we think we must always reply to replies? For replies come from those who either cannot understand what is said to them, or are so stubborn and contentious that they refuse to give in even if they do understand.
 

Pretty spot on. Here it is in its whole context from another translation

If the feeble mind of man did not presume to resist the clear evidence of truth, but yielded its infirmity to wholesome doctrines, as to a health-giving medicine, until it obtained from God, by its faith and piety, the grace needed to heal it, they who have just ideas, and express them in suitable language, would need to use no long discourse to refute the errors of empty conjecture. But this mental infirmity is now more prevalent and hurtful than ever, to such an extent that even after the truth has been as fully demonstrated as man can prove it to man, they hold for the very truth their own unreasonable fancies, either on account of their great blindness, which prevents them from seeing what is plainly set before them, or on account of their opinionative obstinacy, which prevents them from acknowledging the force of what they do see. There therefore frequently arises a necessity of speaking more fully on those points which are already clear, that we may, as it were, present them not to the eye, but even to the touch, so that they may be felt even by those who close their eyes against them. And yet to what end shall we ever bring our discussions, or what bounds can be set to our discourse, if we proceed on the principle that we must always reply to those who reply to us? For those who are either unable to understand our arguments, or are so hardened by the habit of contradiction, that though they understand they cannot yield to them, reply to us, and, as it is written, "speak hard things," and are incorrigibly vain. Now, if we were to propose to confute their objections as often as they with brazen face chose to disregard our arguments, and as often as they could by any means contradict our statements, you see how endless, and fruitless, and painful a task we should be undertaking. And therefore I do not wish my writings to be judged even by you, my son Marcellinus, nor by any of those others at whose service this work of mine is freely and in all Christian charity put, if at least you intend always to require a reply to every exception which you hear taken to what you read in it; for so you would become like those silly women of whom the apostle says that they are "always learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth."

Hacksaw Ridge

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss in  Hacksaw Ridge

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge

After a break for Easter and another week's hiatus due to illness, Historical Movie Monday returns with a film about a peaceful man in a time of war, a man of principle in a time of expedience, a man of transcendent faith in a world narrowed to naked survival. The film is Hacksaw Ridge, starring Andrew Garfield.

With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.
— Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge

The history

The US Marine Corps and Army landed on Okinawa on April 1, 1945. It was Easter Sunday—and April Fool's Day. Eugene Sledge, a Marine mortarman, later remembered how

When our wave was about fifty yards from the beach, I saw two enemy mortar shells explode a considerable distance to our left. They spewed up small geysers of water but caused no damage to the amtracs in that area. That was the only enemy fire I saw during the landing on Okinawa. It made the April Fool's Day aspect even more sinister, because all those thousands of first-rate Japanese troops on that island had to be somewhere spoiling for a fight.

The Maeda Escarpment is visible running northwest to southeast across the top of this map, north of Shuri. Each topographical relief line represents ten meters of elevation.

The Maeda Escarpment is visible running northwest to southeast across the top of this map, north of Shuri. Each topographical relief line represents ten meters of elevation.

Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu chain, was about 70 miles long and lay about 400 miles south of the main Japanese archipelago. Its size and proximity meant that, once captured from its defenders, the island would be a close airbase for the firebombing of Japanese cities, and, in the long term, a critical staging area for the long-awaited invasion of Japan. 

Fortunately, that invasion would never come. Unfortunately, it was, at least in part, because of the 82 days of grueling combat that followed the landings. The Japanese fought from dense networks of mutually-supporting bunkers, pillboxes, and tunnels that slowed the American advance in the southern half of the island to a crawl. Okinawa's rugged landscape and torrential spring rains added to the misery. American and Japanese corpses rotted half-buried in craters. According to Sledge, Okinawa "was choked with the putrefaction of death, decay, and destruction." 

The center of Japanese resistance in the southern half of Okinawa was the town of Shuri. The Japanese commanders were headquartered in the town's medieval fortress, Shuri Castle, and the town formed the nucleus of a series of heavily fortified defensive rings, carefully constructed to take maximum advantage of the terrain. What 20,000 Japanese defenders had done at Iwo Jima, which the Marines had taken at the cost of almost 7,000 lives, the 100,000 defenders of Okinawa would far surpass. By the end of the battle, over 12,000 Americans had been killed in action, thousands of others had died of wounds, and another 50,000 had been wounded. The vast majority of the island's 100,000 Japanese defenders were killed, and around 150,000 Okinawan civilians, caught in the storm, died too.

Among the toughest strongpoints of Shuri's defenses was the Maeda Escarpment, a flat-topped ridge with a sheer cliff face running diagonally across the island for several thousand yards. The ridge was honeycombed with tunnels and interconnected bunkers. According to a unit history of the 77th, after a tank fired white phosphorous into one bunker, "within fifteen minutes observers saw smoke emerging from more than thirty other hidden openings along the slope." Here, at the end of April and beginning of May, elements of the 77th Infantry Division repeatedly scaled and assaulted Japanese positions, only to be repulsed with heavy casualties. Previous assaults by another unit had resulted in 1,000 casualties in four days. 

Desmond Doss receives the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman

Desmond Doss receives the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman

Here, over the course of several days at the beginning of May, Private Desmond T. Doss of Lynchburg, Virginia, a combat medic in the 77th, repeatedly entered the combat zone to rescue wounded men—sometimes isolated from the main body of his unit by 200 yards or lying within 30 feet of enemy positions—and even stayed on the ridge giving first aid after his unit fell back. A lanky, rail-thin young man, Doss would drag or carry his wounded comrades to cover, administer first aid, and carry them to the edge of the cliff where he would lower them by rope for evacuation to field hospitals. He continued to rescue and treat the wounded after the capture of the Escarpment—by now nicknamed Hacksaw Ridge—and their advance on Shuri until he was himself wounded and evacuated on May 21.

Doss later estimated he had saved around 50 men over the course of those days; his commanders estimated 100. The army settled on 75. For his actions there and throughout the Battle of Okinawa, Doss was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

A word that often recurs when reading accounts of Doss's exploits is remarkable. What Doss did was remarkable, not only because of the physical and moral strength it took, or the courage to face such a murderous, often invisible enemy, but also because Doss was a pacifist. A Seventh-day Adventist, Doss had believed American involvement in World War II to be justified but would not himself take a human life. He had enlisted as a medic but been put into training with a rifle company, where he faced harassment and abuse for "cowardice." 

The film

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss and Theresa Palmer as Dorothy Schutte in  Hacksaw Ridge

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss and Theresa Palmer as Dorothy Schutte in Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge began with another film: The Conscientious Objector, a documentary about Doss produced for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Doss had, like another pacifist Medal of Honor winner, Alvin York, refused to market himself or his story for financial gain, and only agreed to do so much later in life. After seeing The Conscientious Objector, producer Bill Mechanic optioned Doss's story for a full Hollywood treatment. Doss would die, in 2006 at the age of 87, long before the project came to fruition.

Mechanic spent years developing Hacksaw Ridge. Major studios proved uninterested; even more than a decade ago, just before the advent of the Marvel series with Iron Man (2008), studios wanted properties with franchise potential. A film about a devoutly religious pacifist did not pique studio interest. Mechanic even approached Walden Media, which had produced the faith-inflected Narnia films in the early 2000s, but their insistence on "a soft PG-13" bothered Mechanic, whose interest in Doss's story stemmed precisely from the man's courage in horrible conditions.

Mechanic eventually brought Mel Gibson on to direct. This was an inspired choice. Similar to his biblical epic approach to Braveheart, Gibson brought an old Hollywood sensibility to Hacksaw Ridge and a famous—if not infamous—obsession with physicality and suffering to the second half of this picture.

The filmmakers—Gibson, Mechanic, and screenwriter Robert Schenkkan, who also worked on Tom Hanks's HBO miniseries The Pacific—structured Hacksaw Ridge in two acts rather than the traditional Syd Field three-act structure. The result is a bifurcated movie, radically different in tone and execution in its first and second halves. The first half is an old Hollywood love story that flirts with corniness. Schenkkan, in the behind-the-scenes features of the DVD, speaks of the challenge of making Doss, an atypical Hollywood hero, interesting: a man with deep personal faith, no vices, and a relationship with closely observed boundaries. I think Hacksaw Ridge succeeds at making Doss relatable and likable by embracing him and his world unironically and even lovingly. Doss's romance with Dorothy Schutte is (refreshingly, I have to say) chaste and old-fashioned, and even the abuse Doss suffers during bootcamp at the hands of his fellow recruits (all fun Hollywood "Central Casting" types) is squeaky clean, language wise. Only after a couple viewings did I realize how little swearing there is in the film.

Gibson carefully adopted this calm, reassuring, old fashioned aesthetic to create the maximum possible contrast between the world Doss leaves behind and the world he enters in the second act—Okinawa in 1945. 

Hacksaw Ridge 's Okinawa set on an Australian farm.

Hacksaw Ridge's Okinawa set on an Australian farm.

Shot on small, low-budget locations in Australia but with a panoply of skilled makeup and special effects artists, the film's combat scenes are harrowing. Despite watching dozens and dozens of war movies since I was a kid, Hacksaw Ridge shocked and disturbed me. The combat is extreme—over-the-top, frenetic, gory, ultraviolent, and indiscriminate—and the wounds inflicted on human flesh detailed, graphic, and severe. This treatment of combat—by the director of The Passion of the Christ, a fact seldom overlooked—has brought Hacksaw Ridge in for some criticism, the essence of which is the irony of a film about a pacifist being filled with such gruesome, in-your-face violence and gore. A few reviewers seem to think that Hacksaw Ridge glorifies war, and others seem repelled by the inferred glee they imagine Gibson takes in staging such scenes.

But like the near-cheesiness of the pre-war scenes, this violence serves a crucial purpose to the film and its pacifistic message. I cannot emphasize enough what a round-the-clock horror show Okinawa was. The combat lasted two and a half months and devastated the island, with around a quarter of a million people killed and wounded as a result. Mechanic rightly intuited that he could not do justice to Doss's story with a PG-13 version because Okinawa was not a PG-13 experience (compare how the PG-13 Unbroken pulled some of its punches in its depiction of Japanese POW camps). Doss's heroism—his refusal to carry a weapon (some medics are, accurately, shown carrying pistols and carbines in Hacksaw Ridge) despite the danger, and his repeated return to the killing zone—would not have registered on the gut, emotional level they did without a brutal depiction of what Doss was risking to save the lives of others. In addition, by the time Doss himself is wounded the injuries feel real because we have seen so much of what has happened to others before him.

Finally, Hacksaw Ridge's violence heightens the film's religious tones and iconography. (I think iconography is exactly the right word: witness that slow-motion shot of Doss washing the blood off after he comes down from the ridge.) I have plenty of differences with Doss's sect, but the courage he showed, the sheer physical punishment he took in sacrificing himself for others, and the love with which he did it show a man modeling Christ better than anything Hollywood could come up with. For that reason along, Gibson, with his hyper-sacramental sense of the physicality of the world and what it demands of people, would have been the perfect choice to direct. I think the finished product speaks for itself.

The film as history

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I'll be brief on this point. Hacksaw Ridge tells Doss's story, but it tells it in the way, again, of Old Hollywood. The film Hacksaw Ridge reminds me most of is Sergeant York, which hits many of the same beats and has a similar tone, structure, and hard-hitting violence (by 1941 standards). It also freely elides and condenses the events of Desmond Doss's life story.

You can find more detailed breakdowns of the liberties Hacksaw Ridge takes elsewhere (here's one good one), but a handful include:

Desmond Doss standing above the cargo nets on the Maeda Escarpment, 1945

Desmond Doss standing above the cargo nets on the Maeda Escarpment, 1945

  • Doss and Dorothy were already married by the time he enlisted, so he did not miss their wedding after being thrown into the brig.
  • Dorothy did not become a nurse until after the war and she did not meet Desmond at a hospital.
  • Tom Doss's alcoholism was exaggerated and the dispute over the pistol did not directly threaten Doss's mother.
  • Doss actually had experience as a combat medic on Guam (July and August 1944) and Leyte (October-December 1944) before landing on Okinawa.
  • Smitty, Doss's primary antagonist through bootcamp, was a composite character, as were most of the other members of Doss's unit.
  • The dramatic last-second intervention of Tom Doss at his son's court martial was invented; in reality, he phoned a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church's leadership, who went through channels with the Pentagon and helped clear up Doss's situation.

What these liberties all have in common is that they were taken to condense and, especially, heighten the film. In the case of the cliffs Doss's unit must scale to reach Hacksaw Ridge proper, the heightening is literal. The one thing Gibson toned down was the nature of Doss's final wounds: after being blown up by a grenade, Doss gave up his stretcher for a more severely wounded man, had his left arm shattered by a bullet, splinted it himself, and crawled 300 yards to safety. That, Gibson thought, no one would believe.

I'm not particularly bothered by the film's effort to condense Doss's life. Reading the real story, it is diffuse and extremely complicated, and the filmmakers had to be selective in their presentation in order for the story to work in their medium. None of the changes compromise the story, I think, and all were calculated to set up and make intelligible Doss's actions on Okinawa (witness his nascent medical skill and interest in helping others illustrated by early scenes surrounding his meet cute with Dorothy). 

Nor am I particularly bothered by the heightened tone and presentation of the film, since it is consistent all the way through. Hugo Weaving as Tom Doss isn't just a tormented alcoholic, he's a wildly tormented alcoholic. (Weaving skillfully brings his performance away from the verge of scenery-chewing several times, especially his dinner scene after Doss's brother enlists, and the pathos he evokes is both surprising and real.) Doss's tormentors don't just harass him, they physically pummel him. The violence is not just shocking and gruesome but operatic and balletic, and places a heavy emphasis on machine guns and hand to hand combat when much of the time the enemy fired invisibly from bunkers and caves. All of this is in the service of a legitimate interest in the story, and the exaggeration, I think, helps. To bring a relevant passage from Flannery O'Connor into it: 

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

Despite his outward appearance, Desmond Doss was a large and startling figure and the storytelling suited him.

If I could change one thing about Hacksaw Ridge, it would be to emphasize what a longterm sacrifice Doss made on Okinawa. Shortly after the end of the war, Army doctors discovered he had tuberculosis, probably contracted in the Philippines, and he spent the next six years in and out of VA hospitals before being discharged with 90% disability. During the 1970s, an apparent overdose of antibiotics caused him to go completely deaf, requiring a cochlear implant years later. In all, Doss lost much of the use of his left arm, five ribs, a lung, and years of his life and health in the service of his fellow man.

How all of that could have been incorporated into the film, I don't know, but I'm glad his story has gotten so much attention and hope it will inspire future Desmond Dosses.

More if you're interested

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Doss was surprised with an appearance on This is Your Life in 1959; the entire episode is available on YouTube here. Doss's genuine humility and discomfort at the attention he's been given are palpable. Doss's company and regimental commanders, both of whom were portrayed in the film, also appear on the show.

Doss's life story has been told by Booton Herndon in The Unlikeliest Hero. The Seventh-day Adventist Church reprinted Herndon's book and gave away thousands of copies when the film came out. There are two versions: Redemption at Hacksaw Ridge, which is updated with photos and Doss's life after the war, and Hero of Hacksaw Ridge, an abridgement. The Conscientious Objector, the documentary that led to the production of this film, is available on DVD and on YouTube.

Okinawa: The Last Battle, cited above, has a good chapter on the events surrounding Doss's exploits available for free from the US Army Center for Military History. Richard B. Frank's Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire has a good assessment of Okinawa in its context as a stepping stone to the invasion of Japan, and Max Hastings's Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 has a good chapter on Okinawa. Robert Leckie, Marine veteran of Guadalcanal, New Britain, and Peleliu, wrote a readable popular history of the battle called Okinawa: The Last Battle of World War II.

The indispensable book on Okinawa, if you want to understand the horror that men like Doss lived through, is the aforementioned Eugene Sledge's memoir With the Old Breed. This book is a must-read for anyone who has a rosy or triumphalist view of war.

Next week

I haven't settled on a film for next week just yet, but a kind colleague of mine just dropped off a foreign film I've wanted to see since high school, so it may be that. Until then, thanks for reading!

The Gardener, an Easter sonnet

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‘Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?’ She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said unto Him...
 

This is a sonnet I wrote on Easter Sunday a few years ago. It's an elaboration on an image from my favorite passage of Chesterton's Everlasting Man. But the less explanation the better, probably.

I hope you enjoy, and that you all have a happy Easter!

* * * * *

The Gardener
(After Chesterton)

In the beginning, first of all the stations,
the gardener, his delving his delight,
in cooling mists of waning daylight
walked his grounds and spoke with his creations.
But garden drove him out, itself so driven,
and histories of corruption followed after—
of rot, of glut, of lust and hollow laughter,
the briar-strangled garden left unliving.

Beginning new, that gardener once gone
returned and looked and set to work again—
his delving his delight, despite of thorns,
despite of toil, despite of blood—until again
he rose and walked the garden, now reborn,
in coolness not of evening but of dawn.

Chesterton on talking to oneself

From a piece he wrote critiquing his own play, Magic

 
If a man does not talk to himself, it is because he is not worth talking to.
— G.K. Chesterton
 
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Magic is a wonderful little comedy that I read some years ago during a bout of depression. It deals with faith, reason, and skepticism on the scale of ordinary life. The most dramatic thing that happens in this play, in which characters furiously debate whether magic is, in fact, real, is a lamp turning on. 

With characteristically Chestertonian wit and humor, Magic insists on faith and reason, rather than faith or reason, and dramatizes the impoverishment of humanity when the two are opposed. But it's not a straight allegory or morality play; Chesterton leaves things ambiguous, including the very subject of the play. 

If it's so ambiguous, then what's the point? you might want to ask. I don't know, but Magic was exactly what I needed when I read it, the same way many people claimed to have been saved from madness by Chesterton's Man Who Was Thursday. To quote his introduction to the book of Job, in reference to God's refusal to answer Job's questions: 

The other great fact which, taken together with this one, makes the whole work religious instead of merely philosophical is that other great surprise which makes Job suddenly satisfied with the mere presentation of something impenetrable. Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.

Magic has been revived a few times in out of the way places by fellow devotees of Chesterton. (Here's a review of a production from about the time I read the play.) It's never been staged anywhere close enough for me to see it performed, but I hope that will change someday. 

In the mean time, do check Magic out. It's a short three act play; you can easily read it through in one sitting. It's available free at Project Gutenberg and in volume 11 of The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, which is still a work in progress (at 37 volumes!) from Ignatius Press.