Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"I Don't Think That God Is On Anyone's Side": British Army's Chaplain General Speaks

Chaplain-General the Reverend Jonathan Woodhouse [Picture: Corporal Steve Blake, Crown Copyright/MOD 2012]

The UK MOD's People In Defence series this month featured the British Army's Chaplain-General on his work and thinking. I particularly liked the answer he gave to this question:

LM: In war films, chaplains traditionally reassure soldiers that God is on their side, but logically he can't be on everyone's side? What's your take?

JW: I don't think that God is on anyone's side. It's up to us to be on God's side and seek out the way he wants us to live. In certain circumstances soldiers are allowed to use lethal force as a last resort but there are very clear rules of engagement. We minister to people who may be called on to use lethal force and that brings a creative tension. War is always the last resort.

Read the whole interview here.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Seen On The Morning Run: Three Views Of The River

My Saturday morning running route of late has been taking me by the same bend in the South Saskatchewan River, and taking pictures of the river in its various moods and seasons has become a good excuse to stop and catch my breath for a few minutes.

Here's the river on a calm and mercifully warm day in late October with little hint of the winter to come.

Nearly the same spot in early November, after the first snowfall of winter, with ice starting to form at the bend.

And the river as it appeared this morning, 24 November, after a week of cold weather and thickening ice.

Today's run, a very slow 16km, got me over the symbolic number of 2000 kms logged since spring 2010 using the Nike Plus app, a full month ahead of schedule. It would be nice to get to 2100kms before this Christmas.

Cheers and thanks for looking. MP+

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Military Picture Of The Week

Milpic of last week, actually. I was lucky enough to attend a Land Forces Western Area chaplains' conference last week and our boss was generous enough to choose the Royal Canadian Navy Base in Esquimalt, BC, as our venue. This was especially kind of him because Esquimalt is in lovely and mild Victoria, whereas the Army bases in Western Canada (Edmonton, Shilo, Suffield) are all cold and dreary places in winter. On our last day a number of us had a chance to tour the frigate HMCS Vancouver, which is about to go into refit. This photo was taken from her stern, looking across the harbour. The big ship is one of the RCN's two fleet supply and replenishing ships, Provider, I think, looking very spry for her 40+ years. Can't tell you which ships the others are. It would be a good go, being a Navy chaplain, I think.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Book Review: Two Iraq War Novels

Last month I posted a review of Kevin Powers' novel on the US war in Iraq, The Yellow Birds, and wondered if this novel might be an indicator of the kind of literature we might expect from the wars of the last decade.
Since then I've finished two more novels on the Iraq War, both by American writers. Both could be described as satire, which isn't a surprise really, when you consider that the Iraq War has already generated books with titles like Fiasco ( Tom Ricks). Journalists like Ricks and David Finkel (The Good Soldiers) have already documented the futility of the US Army's task in Iraq, blundering around like a well-meaning, tormented and destructive giant. It's not surprising that the novelists would mine the veins of absurdity and dark humour in that terrible story.

Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk ( new York, Harper Collins, 2012) is about the war on the home front, or US Homeland as it became after 9/11. A squad of US Army soldiers, the Bravos, were documented by an embedded news crew in a firefight and have been turned into overnight heroes and media stars, giving the folks at home, finally, something to feel good about in a confusing war.
The highlight of a nationwide media tour for Billy Lynn and his fellow Bravos is an appearance in a half-time extravaganza at a Dallas Cowboys football game. In a recent post here I included a few paragraphs from that scene as an example of Fountain's prose, which is often virtuosic. Fountain amps up his writing to capture his subject, the sheer excess of American culture, it's material abundance and the often childlike attitudes of its citizens. In shooting at such a big and obvious target, Fountain manages to avoid the trite and obvious. His tone is angry and comic, but he manages to create a sympathetic and self-aware character, a young soldier smart enough to realize that he is caught up in something huge and rich and even terrifying, so that going back to war seems like a relief at the end.

David Abrams' Fobbit (New York: Grove Atlantic, 2012) is not as literary as Billy Lynn's. Whereas Fountain is an accomplished writer, Abrams is a former US Army officer who kept journals while serving in public affairs in Baghdad in 2005. Fobbit is the novel he wrote from those journals, and the title comes from a satiric name used by combat troops for their comrades who never leave the comforts and security of FOBs (Forward Operating Bases).
Abrams's characters are fobbits working at a variety of tasks, including public affairs, in a bureaucratic and surreal system far removed from the exploding IEDs and ambushes of Baghdad. Among this less than heroic cast is Sgt. Gooding (With his neat-pressed uniform, his lavender-vanilla body wash, and the dust collected around the barrel of his M16 rifle, he was the poster child for the stay-back-safe soldier"), a public affairs peon tasked with writing meaningless and sanitized press releases according to the whims of his superiors. Abrams main point, that rigid, timid and mendacious military bureaucrats will always be outmatched and outwitted by the 24/7 news cycle, is his own signature contribution to the rich vein of military satire.
There were times when I thought Abrams overplayed his hand in signaling the kind of book he wanted to write. It is not a coincidence that while on leave in a dismal R&R facility in Qatar, Sgt Gooding reads Joseph Heller's Catch 22 poolside. That is not to say that Abrams has not written a smart, funny and perceptive novel. Anyone who has languished in a modern military headquarters will find something to laugh at it shake their head at.
Both are novels are rich in dark humour and irony, and both show writers capturing modern war, which remains, as Great War poet Gilbert Frankau once called it, a "loathsome, servile murder job", only now with more creature comforts.
When someone finally edits an anthology or teaches a course on the literature of 21st Century War, I predict that Fountain and Abrams will both be mentioned (as will Kevin Powers). Fountain may get more mention for his stunning and angry poetry/prose, which reminds me of Allen Ginsberg's outrage from a previous generation, but both books will be remembered.
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Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Remembrance Day Talk To Schoolchildren

I've been asked to give a talk tomorrow at the Canadian-British grade school in the Crown Village of Ralston, the married quarter patch at CFB Suffield. MP+

I think it's great that you at Ralston School are having this Remembrance Day service, because it's really important. I am sure that lots of people have told you at.

I also think its great that you are doing this service because it's a really hard thing to do. I mean, think about it. It is a hard thing to do, if you really think about it. It's hard if you really think about what you are remembering.

What are we really remembering today? We're remembering young people, not much older than you, who died in wars. We're remembering families that had to leave their homes and run for their lives. We're remembering kids that had to grow up never knowing who their moms or dads were.

These are hard, difficult things to remember, if we really think about them. So wouldn't it be easier if we didn't bother with Remembrance Day? Would it be so bad, really, if we just forget all about this stuff?

Well, what would happen if we forgot other things? What would happen if we forgot about our families and our friends? What would we be like if we forgot our parents, or our teachers, and all the things they've taught us? What would we be like if we forgot where we live?

If we forgot these things, it would be hard for us, wouldn't it? We wouldn't be the same people we are now. We'd be in a lot of trouble, not knowing who we are or what we were supposed to do.

So what sort of people would we be if we forgot about Remembrance Day?

If we forgot the soldiers who died in wars, and if we forgot about our veterans, we would have trouble being brave, or loyal, because we wouldn't know what bravery and loyalty looks like.

If we forgot about the soldiers who died in wars, and if we forgot about our veterans, and what they fought and died for, we wouldn't care about other people so much. We wouldn't really care about helping other people if they were attacked or if they were suffering.

If we forgot about all the innocent people who have died in wars, we wouldn't know how horrible wars really are. We might even think that wars were fun or exciting, instead of thinking that fighting is something we do only when we really have to.

So well done, Ralston School. Thank you for remembering and for thinking about these difficult things. Because, really, Remembrance Day isn't just about remembering them and how they died. Remembrance Day is also about remembering who we are and how we want to live.

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Location:A Remembrance Day Talk For Schoolchildren

Friday, November 2, 2012

Language Play Of The Week

We have an occasional feature here at Mad Padre called Language Play of the Week. Actually it's more like Language Play of the Quarter but I digress. Every now and then I come across a passage that makes me say "Wow, Writer Dude, you totally nailed that." OK, that last phrase wasn't especially felicitous, but you get my point.
I've just finished Ben Fountain's novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a satirical take on America and the so-called War on Terror (what do we cal the wars of the last eleven years - surely there is a better title?).
The prose is magnificent, excessive, scaled up to Fountain's subject, which is the lavish power and wealth and emptyheadedness of America and his rage about it. I could cite so many passages where I was left stunned by the language. This one comes at the book's climax, when a group of young US soldiers, instant YouTube heroes of the Iraq war, are feted at the halftime show of a Dallas Cowboys game. Be warned that the language here is rough.
"Such an unholy barrage of noise pours forth that Billy thinks he might be lifted off his feet. It is a dam bursting, bridges collapsing at rush hour, tsunamis of killer froth and boulder-sized debris revising the contours of the known world. Just assume you're going to die, so they were instructed the week before deploying to Iraq. Affirmative! Roger that! Sir yes sir! Carnage awaits us, we are the ones who will not be saved, the poor sad doomed honourably fucked front line who will fight them over there so as not to fight them here! A harsh thing for any young man to hear, but this is a part of every youth's education in the world, learning the risks that are never fully revealed until you commit. Destiny's Child is really laying into the strut, they could be wading through a storm surge up to their waists, goddam, so how is he supposed to redeploy with such sights in his head? Within days, no, hours, Bravo is back in the shit and he's waiting for them to say it again, he dreads it but the harsh words need to be said, you're going to die, just get that part of it over with please, but no, no one will do it, they get Beyonce and her mouthwatering ass instead!
Maybe it's not supposed to make sense. Or maybe not for you, Billy reasons, because you are a duh-umb shit. Then they turn, he's missed the hash mark by half a beat, the Drill grunts razor-sharp on the mark while Bravo flops around like loose shoelaces. "Change step march," Day woofs sotto voce; as team leader he's responsible for getting them through halftime with some semblance of their dignity intact, and now he counts time with the Drill grunts, trying to shoehorn the Bravos into lockstep. "Left, left,", the mantra settles Billy's mind and his feet start to follow, though it would help if he had a weapon in his hands. Just ahead are the Rots [ROTC students], a herd of shambling big-assed kids, many of them no doubt older than Billy and yet they look so young from the back, their soft, fleshy, baby- fat necks practically screaming for the sacrificial ax to come down.
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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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