Monday, June 11, 2012

Known but to God

I've always had mixed feelings about the U.S. military. I want it to be the most lethal fighting force on earth, comprising terrifyingly efficient killers and destroyers like the Roman Legions. I also want it firmly shackled by civilian control. And, especially after the past decade, I want its mission to be a combination of deterrence and defense.

That's all. Not an armed priesthood bringing the gospel of Americanism to eagerly waiting Third World mud villages. Not a social engineering unit for putting uniforms on transsexuals. Above all, not a plaything for politicians' war games.


That said -- one thing I unequivocally like is military ceremonies. They proudly flaunt their tradition and gravitas. Intellectually the idea of people drilled to act in unison, in precise patterns, might be distasteful; but it is an aesthetic pleasure. Watching a disciplined group in ritual motion, whether it's a military drill team or dancers in a Balanchine ballet, produces an archetypal thrill.

Even those newsreel shots of Nazi or Soviet troops in the thousands goose stepping past the reviewing stand, while morally disgusting, tug at the emotions. That's what they were designed to do.


Military ceremonies are almost the last survival in our practical, bureaucratic world of the splendor attached to public life in times past. Every formal occasion was an opportunity to dazzle onlookers (yes, the impression created had a political purpose, but it was also the outpouring of confident elegance).

The opening of Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August offers a glimpse of what they were like at their most extravagant:
So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun.   
Even ordinary parades and festivals were glorious displays of color and pomp. What few celebrations of civic pride we can muster today have degenerated into assemblies of souvenir and ice cream vendors, displays of bad amateur paintings, balloons for the kids, and maybe a few "antique" (i.e., pre-1980s) cars.

The armies of the world held onto their style, sometimes stupidly: less than a hundred years ago, at the outset of the Great War, French soldiers marched to their muddy deaths wearing dress uniforms with red-striped trousers. (The French and Italians still have a taste for cutting a good figure in uniform; I've watched delightedly as traffic cops in Rome stopped cars -- they have some kind of wand they arc toward the curb, unlike American police who crudely point -- snapped to attention and saluted the driver.)


Full-dress occasions are rare in the armed services today, but when they honor someone, it is a grand sight.

The high-voltage blogger Ann Barnhardt recently wrote about the changing of the guard at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery (dated May 28; I can't figure out any way to link to individual postings on her site). She said:
The soldiers are in full dress uniform, meticulously turned-out and maintained. They are not in combat gear that soldiers would use to walk a patrol in Afghanistan. The Tomb guards are doing something DIFFERENT, and thus their uniforms reflect that. Really, what the ceremonies surrounding the Tomb are is the highest form of ART. It is living ART, not consisting of a mere two-dimensional representation, not consisting of inanimate objects, but ART consisting of human beings in action. The uniforms, the gait, the precise rubrics, words, gestures and movements - these all combine into a perpetual work of art that not only moves and inspires the people who witness it, but also accomplishes the goal of making tangible a RESPECT for and a REMEMBRANCE of all of the fallen unknown soldiers. The Tomb Guards walk their patrol whether anyone is there to see them do it or not. It isn't a show. It is a service. It is a liturgy.
Barnhardt provides this video of the guard changing. Its technical quality is eh, probably put on YouTube by a tourist, but the essence and meaning shines through. If you can watch this without blinking back a furtive tear, something is wrong with you.



YIH said...

That also leaves me scratching my head about Ann Barnhardt, she doesn't really seem to 'get' the concept of a blog. Not only is there no way to link individual posts, there are no archives or search either. Once an entry 'rolls off' the main page, it's gone *poof*!
And what's even stranger, even if you have your own (paid for, unique URL) site it's quite possible to use common (and free) blogging software to implement a fully-functional blog.
From reading Auster's issues, I wouldn't recommend Typepad, but Wordpress was designed to be easily installed 'on top of' an existing site. Even Blogger can be used in this manner, though it's rather awkward to do so.
Her writing is good but there are times she makes little or no sense, and that's an example.

Stogie said...

Those words "Known But to God" have always provoked my emotions, ever since I was a young boy. Many a marble cross in military cemeteries bears those words too -- "Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms...known but to God."

Rick Darby said...


Based on what I see there, including the lack of a way to comment, I don't think Ann Barnhardt's site is a blog. She doesn't want to host a forum of people writing, "I agree with you on this point, but I disagree on that point." Ann believes that's futile. She's said that the Republic is dead, and all that matters now is what people do.

So she's an agitator and provocateuse. She doesn't care if people read her posts from two months ago. Everything she writes and says is a warning and a call to action.

Yes, she can sound hysterical. Maybe that's what the times demand, even if her rhetoric is questionable and overheated.


All of us are known but to God. Our mates, our families, our closest friends -- they cannot know us completely. We don't know ourselves fully; new circumstances bring out responses that surprise us.

Only God knows the abyssal depths of our souls, the wrangling emotions of our hearts, our unconscious motivations, our past lives, the spirits who guide us for good and the malicious spirits who whisper treason to ourselves.

I do not know how to trust God, or even how to know God. For the present, I must be satisfied that God knows me.

Stogie said...

Rick, very well said!