Walls of Men

Tiananmen Square and the tragedy of the Catholic Church in China

I know that many of Pope Francis' critics focus on his muddled theology and apparent indifference to the victims of abuse at the hands of the clergy, but for me his treatment of Chinese Catholics is his biggest sin.

Several years ago he agreed to an arrangement whereas Communist Chinese government gained veto power over ecclesiastical appointments.  While some tried to compare it to concordats with various European regimes, the fact of the matter is that China's government is official Communist - that is to say, implacably opposed to the Church.  The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association is designed to keep people from Christ, not bring them closer to Him.

A church subject to Communist approval is no church at all, and proof of this can be found in the way that the Catholics in Hong Kong once again canceled their Mass in honor of the Tiananmen Square victims.

Francis clearly has a soft spot in his heart for Marxism, and that's a problem.  I can understand why faithful Chinese Catholics would rather risk the perils of underground worship than receive the Official Government Mass provided courtesy of the CCP.

I also feel that for Francis to lead his flock astray in this way is far more damaging than his flirtations with legitimizing homosexuality or ordaining women.   Those positions are self-evidently heretical, but when the pope legitimizes a Communist bishop, what are the faithful to do?

War has no rules

My generation grew  up with a very legalistic, regulated view of war.  As a consequence, I don't think many people understand how utterly raw and lawless war actually is.

In the various contemporary conflicts I see accusations of "war crimes," and with that the expectation that some sort of authority will show up and hand out tickets.  It reminds me of nothing so much as complaining to teacher.

But as William T. Sherman observed more than a century ago, war is cruelty.  Efforts to soften it, "civilize" it or regulate it rarely succeed.  Indeed, the past few decades have illustrated that the more rules are put in place, the more they are bent and twisted to permit what are always considered to be necessary acts.

What really regulates the conduct of war is reciprocity - the understanding that escalation will produce a retaliatory response.  While in many ways more savage than the First World War, WW II did not see the widespread use of poison gas for this reason.  Neither side perceived it as conferring an advantage, so neither used it in anything other than isolated situations (I'm thinking mostly of Japan vs China.)

For the last few decades, wars involving Western nations have never reached the existential levels achieved during World War II.  This has led to a certain level of complacency and the assumption is that Western nations must always observe the laws of war even if the enemy conspicuously does not.  The result is usually military defeat, but one without serious consequences.

This "by the book" mentality also assumes victory is not necessary, and that "managing" the conflict is enough.

But when the stakes become higher, the old rules of reciprocity come back, and it's interesting to note that all of the agreements respecting laws of war were originally based on this principle.  If the enemy uses hospitals as ammunition dumps, they cease to be protected areas.  If the enemy refuses to wear uniforms, that the line between military and civilian is likewise eliminated.

No amount of international condemnation or hand-writing by various non-governmental organizations will change this.

Not all wars are savage, and in both of my books, I noted instances of remarkable restraint and mercy, but such things are the exception rather than the rule.

Oh, and the notion that enemy populations have a "human right" to food?  Utterly without historical foundation.  The oldest - and arguably most effective - siege tactic is starvation.  At some point, the garrison either submits or is too weak to resist.  Food has always been a weapon since the days of the hunter-gatherers.  It would be well for people to understand this.

Movie anti-review: Civil War

From the moment I saw the first trailer for Civil War, I knew I was not going to watch it.  Instead, I'm going to do an anti-review on it.

What is an anti-review?  It's where I explain why I refused to see a movie that should otherwise be very interesting to me.  This is a great example, because it seems to have many of the elements I like in a film.

For one thing, it's about conflict, and I love war movies.  It's also about civil war, revolution, and political collapse, themes I've used in my novels and of course I've written a book about the Spanish Civil War (Long Live Death) and my military history of China (Walls of Men), has lots of rebellions and civil wars in it.

So why am I skipping this film?  Because it is so incredibly stupid.

Some folks have picked on the setting, i.e. Texas and California teaming up.  I actually don't have a problem with that.  For one thing, there's ample precedent for rivals to join against a common enemy.  Heck, Catholic France rallied to the Protestant cause in the Thirty Years' War.

The scenario was purportedly made that way to focus on the characters' stories rather than the political side.   Which is fine.  If you want to just focus on how war affects people, you can pretty much block out the cause and just focus on people trying to get by.

I think one could make a great story about how civil war would affect hospital workers who are forced into treating casualties or conscript soldiers who are now fighting their countrymen and don't fully grasp why.

The problem is that the heroes are journalists, who are supposed to immerse themselves in these things.  Indeed, journalism is now the most political profession outside actual politics.  So to pretend they're "just following the story" is stupid.

The next layer of stupidity is the characters themselves.  There are no "war correspondents" anymore.  They vanished decades ago.  Martha Gellhorn died in 1998.  The notion that there is still some famous woman journalist documented war passed its expiration date 30 years ago.  The characters may as well be relying on chemical film and using phone booths to communicate.  It's stupid.

Similarly, the emphasis on still photography is stupid.  No one uses still photography in war zones, they stream video.  Writer/Director Alex Garland is lost in a world that no longer exists and died by the time he hit age 30.

His notion of how war works is similarly stupid, and clearly shaped by his work on zombie films.  Indeed, he can't get out of that frame of thinking, resorting to the usual trope of having abandoned vehicles on the highway.

But this isn't a zombie outbreak.  Highways are crucial to keeping people fed and clothed.  If a highway is bombed or strafed, people will fix it and scrap or strip the damaged vehicles.

Similarly, he has the whole order/chaos thing exactly backwards.  He shows that the closer one gets to the battlefront, the more organized things are, even down to neat little tent encampments.

No.  That is stupid.  The closer you get the front, the more chaotic things become, and no modern army builds camps like that.  This isn't 1860, it's a time when cheap drones can fly and bomb tidy little camps like that with almost no warning.

And this isn't secret knowledge, either.  Fighting in Ukraine has been going on for more than year.  Maybe he should leave his zombie bubble.

It is in the rear areas that you have order, as the new government is put in place, and people pick up and carry on as best they can.  Garland has the twisted Hollywood version of American in his mind, where everyone between the coasts is just a bunch of bloodthirsty rubes waiting to kill each other.  It's not like that at all, but he's too stupid to know it.

I'm actually losing interest in typing out all the stupidity because there is just so much of it, so I'm just going to finish with the example of the militia guy who shoots the journalist because he's not American.

This scene is stupidly stupid.  It is a towering monument of stupid, covered with a stupid gloss and shining under stupid clouds.  

Why?  Because no militia person would ever walk around with red shades and only a single magazine in his weapon.  Garland knows no actual gun owners, and has no idea how combat works.  Even people with zero military experience understand that you need a canteen, first aid kit, extra ammo and gear to carry it all.  The dweeb he has standing there is someone who literally cannot exist in gun culture. 

"Hey Bob, cover that road with only 20 rounds and be sure not to wear a hat so you can get sunstroke."

"What if I get thirsty?"

"It's only for this one scene."

Okay, I'm done now.  It's too stupid to go on.

55 Days at Peking feels longer than the actual siege

When I was working on Walls of Men: A Military History of China, I decided to take a short break and watch Chinese-themed films.  At that time I was grappling with burnout, and so a full review was out of the question.

I've since come to re-watch the film and...it's really long.

As in, I fell asleep.

I subsequently re-started it, and it was pretty good, but this thing really needed a stern, unforgiving editor.

I suppose I should clarify that 55 Days in Peking is about the Boxer Rebellion and the resulting siege of the diplomatic quarter of Beijing (the city formerly known as Peking).  It was made in 1963, when China nostalgia was a thing, and the Communist government on the mainland was busy tearing apart the fabric of traditional Chinese society.

In addition to the history, there's a lot going on here, with some weird romantic Russian subplot involving Ava Gardner to the usual "can't we all get along" racial integrationist message championed by Charleton Heston.  David Niven is the unflappable English ambassador who holds everything together and Flora Robeson is brilliant as the Empress Dowager.  (Yes, this was back when people could play roles outside their ethnic group.)

But there are also some issues.  I guess the producers decided that simply hanging on against impossible odds was boring, so they added some weird commando raid-style caper which is supposed to matter, but wouldn't because ultimately the international relief column was what saved the day.

Another odd decision was the one regarding the "International Gun."  The films correctly notes that a field piece was cobbled together using bits and pieces from multiple countries.  In the film, it does good service in its first engagement, but then (spoiler alert) explodes, killing its crew.  So sad

In reality, it served throughout the siege.  You'd think that reality - and the coolness of having an indomitable, improbable piece of artillery - would be attractive to the filmmakers, but you'd be wrong.

This is a film I really, really want to like.  It's a subject I find fascinating, has some great moments, but also long stretches of tedium.  It's worth watching if the subject matter interests you, but it can be a chore at times.


The myth of White Christian Nationalism

I guess calling everyone who disagreed with you a Nazi isn't working out, so the new hotness is "Christian Nationalism," or even "White Christian Nationalism."

Yes, it's all about politics, which bores me to death, but I am interested in the theological aspect of this - which is to say, the multiple contradictions in the label.

The first is the business about being "white."  I suppose there may be some isolated corners of Christendom that still appeal to the old heresy about non-white people being the Children of Cain or eternally cursed, but they are on the outer edge of the most distant fringe of the faith.

The only large-scale denomination I know of that adhered to this was the Church of Latter Day Saints, aka the Mormons.  I believe there were some American Baptist sects that did in the 19th Century, but American Protestantism has long been a confusing swirl of various denominations that splinter, recombine, and then split again, and it's hard to keep track.

In any rate, it's an archetypal straw man, a scandalous libel that is easily dismissed by serious people, but since its purpose is to reassure the wavering Yard Sign Calvinists, it won't go away anytime soon.

If there was a kernel of truth in the white smear, there's no substance whatsoever in the concept of a Christian Nationalism.   This should be blindingly obvious to anyone who has ever even glanced at the ecumenical movement.

Even within the various denominations there is spirited disagreement.  How can one form a monolithic Christian state when even the Catholic Church is absorbed with internal doctrinal debates?  The same is true in Protestant circles, with major denominations roiled by controversy over how much sexual deviancy is acceptable and female ordination.

There can be no Christian Nationalism because there is no "Christian Nation."

This is the sort of hysteria that moves people to dress like characters from The Handmaid's Tale, folks who are likely blissfully unaware that the dystopian world of the novel (and TV show) is already here, courtesy of the Democrats, who even now are pushing hard to further normalize the buying and selling of human infants.   I guess mothers for hire (or human incubators) are super-bad when there's a religious element, but compassionate and necessary when used to farm out babies to gay couples.

It is possible that Christian Nationalism is supposed to indicate a fear that there might be Christians who also love their country, though - based on military recruiting numbers - this group seems to be getting smaller by the day.

Is Nationalism a Biblical virtue?  Absolutely.  It is rooted in the Ten Commandments: "Honor thy father and thy mother."  This not only covers respecting them while they are alive but also retaining their customs and culture after they are gone.  

When one mocks one's ancestors, denounces their language, heritage, and casts down their monuments, this commandment is being broken. 

The Bible is the story of a people that becomes a nation, and nowhere in Christian theology is there an admonition to cast aside one's culture and worship commerce, or innovation.

It is a mark of the strange state of the world where loving one's country is now considered subversive and sinister, where honoring one's ancestors is bigoted and reprehensible.

But there we are.

Upon reflection, this isn't that new.  G.K. Chesterton was commenting on it a century ago.  It's just yet another recycled heresy.

If we want to go even deeper, the same situation rose in Republican Spain, where churches were attacked and clergy lynched (even their graves were desecrated) and of course Communist China unleashed the Cultural Revolution that went much farther.  The Killing Fields of Cambodia is the ultimate embodiment of this nihilist belief.

The label is clearly a smear, but also partly cover for people who actually want to erase both Christianity and the nations.  As to what will replace them, I don't think even they know. Remember, Yard Sign Calvinism is never about results.  The pose is the point.

Still, it is interesting to note that the Chinese Communist Party is now ardently promoting nationalism.  I won't hold my breath for columns warning of Marxist Nationalism, but it's both more real and more lethal than White Christian Nationalism.

And yes, I am aware that there are people who are saying "Yes, it exists and it's a good thing!"  This is of a piece with my previous posts about people defending the Confederacy.  There will always be people trying to profit from a hot take on something.

As a practical matter, however, the term exists to discredit what used to be healthy, normal attitudes towards one faith and country.  Pretending it is some sort of radical new thing is nonsense.





Looking back on 2023: The Year of Tidying Up

Yesterday we hosted a modest gathering by historical standards, but it was a welcome change from the lingering isolation of the pandemic.

In addition to the benefit of companionship, I like having people over because it acts as a spur to clean up the place.  It's easy to get complacent about the state of one's home.  So long as the kitchen sink is clear and the toilets aren't covered in grime, it's all good, right?

No.  I think the accumulation of dust and disorderliness can be felt, even if it isn't consciously seen.  So much stuff get set down here or there and then forgotten and finally buried.  It's nice to clear all that out and replace year-old papers with a plate of snacks.

That's somewhat my feeling about 2023 - it wasn't so much about starting new things as much as clearing out old ones.  While my retirement date was set at the end of 2022, it was not until mid-April that the wrangling with the Air Force was completed.  Only then did I receive my packet, certificates and formal notification.

Similarly, June saw the end of two decades of having kids in school.  I'm finally off the district email list.

Of course, Walls of Men published earlier this year, and due to the current domestic situation, I haven't been able to start anything new.  Walls of Men was something of a commercial disappointment to me.  I figured China's military history was a much more compelling topic than the Spanish Civil War, but I was wrong.

With books being out of reach, I've cranked out quite a few columns for Bleeding Fool, and these are getting more engagement, no doubt a function of their frequency and topics.

While I try to be hopeful and optimistic, I look forward to the coming year with a certain sense of dread.  Politics hold no interest for me, and our electoral system is breaking down.  I've little confidence that it will hold up to the strain.

That being said, God is the prime mover in all of this, and I will continue to work in deepening my prayer life and giving all of my trust over to Him.

The limits of eye-witness accounts

A friend of mine's father served in the 12th Armored Division during WW II, rising from the ranks to be a lieutenant.  Remarkably, he's still alive, having passed his 100th birthday.

Apparently the tank destroyer battalion in his unit was what used to be called "colored," that is:  black enlisted men, white officers.  He took a dim view of them, and this extended to black people in general, since he regarded the tank destroyers as fundamentally cowardly, since they never stuck around during combat.

The term "tank destroyer" is somewhat misleading.  Americans may associate this with some of the heavily armored German or Soviet self-propelled artillery, which were nearly invulnerable to frontal bombardment. 

However, U.S. doctrine treated tank destroyers as highly mobile fire brigades, designed to race to threatened points and attack enemy vehicles by ambush.  Once discovered, they would pull out and move to a new firing position.  Their unofficial motto was "hide and hope."

Thus, the tank destroyers were only doing what American doctrine required of them.  I should clarify that my friend's father became an officer via battlefield promotion; he had no formal officer training, so he would not have known armored doctrine.  All he knew was what he saw on the field, and he rose to command by virtue of being alive more than any other quality.

This points to the limited value of eye-witness accounts.  They are hugely important, of course, since they represent actual human experiences.  However, they can also mislead if we place too much reliance on them.  Context is always needed.  The account of this particular veteran is invaluable not because it's analysis is correct (it isn't), but because it reflects not just how troops perceived the role of tank destroyers, but also black soldiers in general.

In both Walls of Men and Long Live Death, I used such first-person accounts as I could find, but I also had to include the context.  The stories of American volunteers in Spain are heavily influenced by Communist propaganda, which also shapes the context of their service.  The high overall casualties of the International Brigades has been cited as proof of their professionalism, courage and fighting spirit.  However, a closer review indicates that many deaths attributed to combat were actually extra-judicial executions for political offenses.

Similarly, the general point of view that Nationalist Armies fought poorly against the Japanese is simply untrue.  By the time the U.S. entered the war, China was cut off from foreign aid, and its armies had suffered terrible losses.  The cream of their forces had died, but not without inflicting considerable harm on the Japanese, who were content to wait on events.  Few first-person accounts of the fighting has reached us, which is why this largely unknown.

That's why these experiences are important, even if they are fallible.

The Flowers of War: a disappointing movie about faith without much faith

I came to watch The Flowers of War through a rather convoluted course of events.  I'm not even sure how I stumbled over it.  I might have been browsing 80s movies and followed the breadcrumbs from Empire of the Sun through Christian Bale to The Flowers of War.  Alternatively, I might have been looking to see what Bale had done since the Batman films.

Having found the IMDB page, I was curious, but cautious.  The film is about an American mortician (Bale) trapped in Nanking during the Japanese assault and subsequent (gruesome) sack.  He, a handful of Catholic schoolgirls and a collection of prostitutes end up being holed up in the Nanking cathedral, and the only remaining priest has died.  Bale's character impersonates a priest in an attempt to protect them.

The trailer makes it seem as though Bale will have a conversion, becoming the thing he pretends to be.  Maybe the prostitutes will convert as well!

Nope, it's a muddled plot that seems to be based on a survivor's reminiscence of the Rape of Nanking. 

The Japanese are universally portrayed as murderous, rapacious and treacherous, which isn't out of line with their behavior at the time. 

What I found particularly interesting was the depiction of the Nationalist Chinese forces, who were appropriately wearing German M35 helmets and armed with Mauser rifles and Czech light machine guns.  These guys were a pleasure to watch, the the Chinese commander was a veritable John Rambo in terms of slaughtering the Japanese.  I much enjoyed this revisionist take. 

But the bulk of the film moved slowly, and uncertainly.  Bale's character is a lapsed Catholic who never utters a prayer or crosses himself.  He is shown in the pews at one point from a distance, and the narration describes him as praying, but despite all the harrowing circumstances, the schoolgirls never reflexively resort to prayer, nor does Bale try to lead them in it. 

As the peril increases, no one references God, it's all about deception and tactics. 

That's why I regard the film as a failure and a disappointment.  It was made in 2011, and I'm assuming the PRC played a role in its production.  This would explain the void where faith should have been.  Had I paid for a ticket, I would feel ripped off.  As it is, I liked the KMT John Rambo, and feel sorry for Bale, who seemed to struggle with what he was supposed to be and where the film was supposed to go.

The curse of Confederate cavalry raiders

As is my wont, I will sometimes browse the pages of Wikipedia to see just how uneven the site is.  The entry for Confederate General Earl Van Dorn did not disappoint:

He is considered one of the greatest cavalry commanders to have ever lived.

That's a remarkably bold statement for a someone whose resume was far from exemplary and whose career was so brief.

His entry exemplifies what I think is the unwarranted praise heaped on Confederate cavalry leaders, especially those known for raiding behind enemy lines.  I'm thinking in particular of Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Singleton Mosby.

Both men combined rapid movement, ferocious attacks with dauntless personal courage and their exploits are quite impressive.

However, there are some important caveats.  The first is that they were leading veteran first-line troops against rear-area security forces, rarely facing first-rate troops or leaders.  It was common practice in the Civil War to send troops forward without completing their training, the assumption being that it would be finished while in a quiet garrison post.  The Union also utilized short-term enlistees in these positions, troops whose length of service might be a short as 90s days.  They were therefore little more than armed civilians.

These troops were almost invariably infantry, meaning they were at a considerable disadvantage vs hit-and-run attacks.

The Confederates were also generally operating on interior lines, which meant the not only knew the terrain, they knew the people, who provided them with excellent intelligence.  Union troops, by contrast, were often isolated and had little knowledge of what was going on around them.

About the only advantage Union forces regularly had was numbers, which is of little use in countering hit-and-run tactics.

All of which is to say that the raiders' success was to be expected.

While it raised Confederate morale, and created iconic heroes, I think it was ultimately harmful to the Rebel cause.  There are two reasons for this.

The first is that capable Union commanders soon learned that they could have either secure lines of supply or freedom of maneuver, but not both.  Their solution was to pack their troops with ammunition and rely on foraging to feed them.  Ulysses S. Grant tested this method in his Big Black River campaign, and his lieutenant, William T. Sherman, further refined it during the subsequent Meridian campaign.

The culmination of this was Sherman's March to the Sea and subsequent march through the Carolinas. 

This brings us to the second unintended consequence: the devastation wrought be these forces.  Throughout history armies have foraged to sustain themselves.  While we think of them as looting and pillaging, this was not always the case.  Julius Caesar famously sent emissaries ahead of his troops to purchase supplies and thereby gain allies.  Of course, those who weren't willing to make a deal usually ended up getting plundered, but the point is that Union forces could have done the same had the local populace been open to it.

In the event, the standard practice was to take what could be carried and destroy what was left.  This inflicted great hardship on Confederate civilians, creating a refugee crisis throughout the South.

In the case of the Shenandoah Valley, the destruction was necessary because the prevalence of raiders and the asymmetrical terrain made it impossible for Union garrisons to sustain themselves.

Thus, while the raiders did inconvenience Union forces and arguably slowed the advance of Union forces, they also ensured that when they did advance, they would wreak untold destruction on the very people the raiders were trying to protect.

Throughout history, we have seen situations where a specific tactic is initially successful, but the counter proves more dangerous than what was happening before. 

I will also add that claims to world-historical status for minor figures like Van Dorn are particularly ludicrous when compared to the vastly larger scope of Chinese military history.

Thoughts on Mulan after writing Walls of Men

I'm spending a lot of time with the grandkids, and as part of that, we're dusting off the old DVD collection and showing them the kind of quality movies Disney used to make before they shifted their business model from family entertainment to pedophile-inspired grooming.

While the current age has me reflecting on elements of all the classic films, Mulan is of interest because since viewing it, I wrote a rather lengthy study of Chinese military history.

So with that additional knowledge, there are a few observations that I have on the film.

The first is that it correctly depicts that fact that Chinese conscription was usually by family rather than individuals.  Under several dynasties, a military class  was created, but unlike in Europe (or Japan), there was no particular social status accorded to its members.  It was simply an administrative function - instead of providing laborers, certain families had to provide soldiers.  The members remained part of the peasantry, and generally served in the infantry.

This is a significant difference between the European concept of a knightly class, which was echoed in both Japan and India.

The character of Mu-Lan is clearly motivated by Confucian filial piety; she impersonates a man not for glory or adventure, but to spare her father from the burden of a service he can no longer provide. 

As to when the story takes place, that is left a little vague.  The Huns have regularly been associated with the Hsiung-nu, but the link is tenuous at best.  If the Huns were the aggressors, the Han Dynasty Great Wall was certainly in existence, but it did not look like the later Ming version.  In any event, gunpowder was not employed until hundreds of years later.

Still, we must cut Mulan some slack, not only because Disney regularly makes mincemeat out of source material, but also because Chinese (and Western) legends seem to exist in a time of their own.  This is like the Renaissance art depicting Roman soldiers in contemporary armor.

I have to say that the film holds up well, and I particularly enjoyed the reaction of the Fa family ancestors to their daughter being a "cross-dresser."  Funny how only a few years later, such humor would be out of bounds.