The Last Battle

5th of May, 1945, saw one of the last (and strangest) battle of the Second World War in Europe, where American troops, Wehrmacht soldiers, a defecting SS officer, and one tank named ‘Jenny’ defended a Medieval Austrian castle full of French political prisoners against an assault by SS troops.

This video provides a fascinating historical rundown of the battle:

Polybius

I like video game history, I like urban legends, and I really like seeing people put a tremendous amount of research and effort into their videos.

With that, I present you Retro Ahoy‘s documentary on Polybius, one of the most prominent myths of the video game world.

First a summary: according to the story, Polybius was a mysterious arcade game available for a brief time in Portland in the early 1980s. Descriptions of the gameplay are vague, but was said to be abstract and strange, combination puzzle and shooting, supposedly highly addictive despite its abstract nature. However, those who played it began to experience odd side-effects such as nausea, amnesia, night-terrors, and behavioral changes. Then a few months after its first appearance, mysterious men in black appeared and wheeled the machines away, never to be seen again.

The rumor is that the game was a CIA experiment: testing mind-control or personality-alteration technology on the general population.

The video goes into greater detail of the story, its history, place in video game culture, and (most impressively) seems to track the legend back to its source. Though even then, there’s still a potential mystery left unanswered to tickle the fancy.

It’s a long video (over an hour), but well-worth it.

I recommend you check out the rest of Retro Ahoy’s channel: the guy puts a ton of research into his work, especially for his longer videos. If you have any interest in video games or video game history, he’s well worth the time (his equally-long and in-depth documentary on ‘The First Video Game‘ is also a must-view).

Miracle of the Vistula

In August 1920, newly independent Poland stood all-but alone against the newly risen monster of the Soviet Union. The Soviets were looking to eliminate the old bastion of the Church from their borders, as well as give themselves a route to foment and take advantage of the chaos in Germany, hoping to spark a Communist revolution in Karl Marx’s homeland, from whence it would spread through the rest of Europe.

On the Feast of the Assumption, the outnumbered and outgunned Poles smashed the advancing Soviets at the Battle of Warsaw, dubbed “The Miracle of the Vistula.”

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“Don’t worry everyone, I’m here to save the world. Again.”
-State Motto of Poland

One of the highlights of the battle was a Polish cavalry unit breaking through Soviet lines early on to capture an important radio tower, which they used to broadcast readings from the Book of Genesis in Polish and Latin to the Soviet troops. Which is a quintessentially Polish thing to do.

This video does a pretty good job of summarizing the context and events of the battle. I pass it along to you in the hopes that we can start making this pivotal event better known.

History and Compromise at ‘The Everyman’

My latest post at The Everyman is up, comparing our present world to Austria in the 1930s. It’s depressingly apt.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

A virulent ideological movement is spreading through a nation’s institutions. It presents itself as the wave of the future, elevating those who have been beaten down, and as a long-overdue correction of past injustices. It pretends to regard any attack on its mission as an attack on the people it claims to be advocating for and any check on its momentum as the cruelest of tyrannies. Those who oppose it are condemned as being motivated by hatred, base personal gain, or because they are beholden to entrenched interests. It is supported by student radicals who, encouraged by their professors, use protests and organized violence to silence dissent. It employs racially charged rhetoric, condemning one group in particular on account of their real or supposed past crimes. People suddenly find old friends and family members cutting ties, turning on them, or uttering shockingly brutal rhetoric. Riots and violent unrest become increasingly common as the supporters of the ideology seek to impose it upon their neighbors.

Meanwhile the Church (with a few exceptions), either mostly dithers or is complicit by focusing on the superficial points of common ground rather than the fundamentally anti-Christian nature of the ideology. Instead, the movement is chiefly opposed by an energetic, highly controversial political leader who couches his battle in terms of the nation’s historical ideals and identity.

Sound familiar?

As you probably guessed, I’m not referring to America in 2020. I’m referring to Austria in 1934. It has become gauche and tedious to make Nazi comparisons, and for good reason. The analogy has become so abused, misapplied, and overused that it now means practically nothing. And the worst of it is that we always seem to miss the real point of that sad episode of history, a point that really deserves to be brought into greater clarity.

One of the most fascinating accounts of the Nazi conquest of Germany and Austria is the memoir, My Struggle Against Hitler, by the great German philosopher Dietrich Von Hildebrand. In it he recounts his flight from Nazi Germany and his life of exile in Austria, where he used a journal called Der Christlich Standestaat (The Christian Corporate State), to wage an unending philosophical battle against the Nazis until Hitler’s Anschluss with Austria in 1938 forced him to flee once again.

What strikes me again and again in reading Von Hildebrand’s words is how willing so many people were to go along with the Nazis and how extensively and aggressively the Nazi ideology was pushed, compared to how hesitant and diffident most of the opposition was. Nazism really was the popular, dynamic, progressive ideology of the day. Those who opposed it were condemned as hating Germany and Germans, or at best considered quaintly backwards and Quixotic, since Nazism was obviously the way of the future.

The narrative then was “we have to find a way to work with Hitler” or “there are many points of similarity between Nazism and Christianity, such as value of the nation, of authority, and so on.” Or else “yes, but the Jews really are deplorable. They really do need to be taken down a peg.”

Again, this should all sound familiar (“many Communists have a truly Christian ethic” etc.), but again, to liken the American Left, or Red China, or any other evil ideological movement to the Nazis is not really the point here. For, as these examples themselves indicate, points of likeness can nearly always be found if you care to look for them. That in itself doesn’t mean much.

My point is that the rise of all these movements serves to illustrate the same lesson taught repeatedly in Scripture: that no man can serve two masters. Neither a person or a nation can hold to two contradictory ideologies. Nazism and Christianity, as are Christianity and Socialism, are essentially contradictory. This fact makes all compromise and all accommodation impossible. Worse, any such attempt to do so will mean actively damaging Christianity and Christian culture by obscuring its real character.

Read the rest here.

Thoughts on ‘Midway’

The other night I got out to see ‘Midway,’ wanting to catch while it was still in theaters. I must say, despite the overuse of CGI and some melodramatic touches, I was very impressed.

The film is of a type that was never very common and is almost non-existent now; a simple and straightforward depiction of historical events. The filmmakers don’t impose any kind of agenda or artificial drama on the story, they just tell what happened more or less the way it did happen and allow that to be enough.

The closest film I can think of would be to Tora, Tora, Tora!, which took basically the same straightforward (and scrupulously fair) approach to the events of Pearl Harbor. A Night to Remember, which took a similar approach to the sinking of the Titanic is another notable example of this particular mini-genre.

Basically, from what I can gather from more historically-literate people, almost everything that happens in this film actually happened. The main characters were all real people. The events and many of the incidents really happened, from aircraft from the Enterprise running smack into the middle of the Pearl Harbor attack to the American bomber trying (unsuccessfully) to ram the Japanese carrier as it goes down in flames.

Even more impressively, the filmmakers allow the characters to speak and act as men and women of their own time and place. There’s no effort to impose a feminist or racially conscious agenda on the events, or to make the characters more ‘modern.’ The Americans have the rough-hewn, devil-may-care, can-do attitude of men who grew up in the Depression. The women are warm and supportive, domestically-focused, but proud of their men. The Japanese have a rigid dignity and class structure bound by intense discipline and sense of honor (though the brutality of the Japanese military is also fairly shown, without any effort to explain the apparent contradiction).

The interesting thing is that, by simply showing these things, the film allows them to be intensely admirable in their own way. When a captured American pilot spits a final defiance in the Japanese face before being executed, it’s a stirring image of American courage. Later, two Japanese officers calmly decide to remain on their ship as its scuttled, after commending the men for their courage and taking responsibility for the defeat on themselves, and it’s a striking and fine instance of distinctly Japanese courage (earlier, Admiral Nagumo, whom we have seen criticized for his very real blunders and whom the film mostly presents as fairly incompetent, has to be convinced to leave his burning flagship under the idea that the remaining men need his leadership. Again, the film makes an effort to be scrupulously fair, not only to the two sides but to individuals on either side).

As for the female characters, there’s a wonderful little vignette where Layton – the codebreaker in charge of determining where the Japanese will strike next, and who tried to warn about Pearl Harbor – comes home late and sets immediately to work at his desk. His wife snatches his glasses to try to make him rest for a while. He pleads for more effort, since he doesn’t want any more men to die because he didn’t work hard enough. She gives him his glasses back and says she’ll make him a sandwich. A sweet, and very human image of domesticity in warfare. Earlier Layton ruefully tells Nimitz that he “plans to spend the rest of his life making it up to her” once the war is over. This matter-of-fact depiction of the different priorities of men and women, where each regards the other with gratitude and affection rather than resentment and hostility, is almost unknown in contemporary fiction. It’s as though the film literally stepped out of the 1940s.

On the subject of raw courage, the film does more than most to show just how insanely dangerous carrier operations of the time were. Again and again we see aircraft malfunction, or crash, or fail to take off or land properly, not due to enemy action but simply because the technology was still in its infancy. Navy fliers, the film makes clear, had to be a little crazy and thoroughly accepting of the possibility of death (one character explains his unflappable courage with an anecdote of how his father survived working on the Empire State Building only to be killed by being hit by a car on his way to church, saying that you simply never know what’s going to get you). We see the futile attacks of the Torpedo Squadrons during the battle, which do absolutely no damage and result in the near-total destruction of both squadrons, but prove unexpectedly crucial by keeping the Japanese pilots busy while the dive bombers set up their runs. And, in what I found to be one of the more striking displays of courage, we see the already-battered bomber squadron, after returning to the Enterprise following their initial run on the Japanese carriers, realizing that they have to get up and go out again to finish the job. Because it’s their job.

We also see the high command, in the form of Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, who is tasked with finding a way to hold off and defeat the superior Japanese navy until American industry gets up to speed. He, and the codebreakers under Layton, are the ones who have to tell the sailors and pilots where to go, and if they get it wrong then more men will die and, as the film makes abundantly clear, the Japanese will be able to threaten Hawaii and the West Coast. The two halves of the military – the commanders and intelligence and the soldiers and sailors – have to have each other’s back if they’re to get anywhere, and the Battle of Midway is an example of them working in harmony to pull off a spectacular and much-needed victory, ultimately turning the tide of the war in the Pacific.

But again, we see both sides. There’s a striking sequence after Pearl Harbor where we cut back and forth between the American brass in Washington and the Japanese command in Tokyo, each discussing what to do next. Admiral Yamamoto is a major figure throughout (showing him listening to FDR’s “Date that will live in infamy” speech was a great touch, as was having him reading Grant’s memoirs). The reasons for the war on either side are presented, but the film shrewdly avoids making an actual judgment on them, focusing more on the events now that the war has begun than on making a historical statement about it.

As I say, my main problem with the film is the overabundance of CGI. While I applaud the film for its minutely accurate depictions of the ships and planes of the time, the whole thing is very, very obviously animated, which takes some of the impact off. They would have been better advised to use a blend of computer and model work (as Emmerich did to great effect in Independence Day) to give a more tactile and solid feel to the film.

There is also a slightly uncomfortable aspect in that the film is largely founded by the Chinese government. Though, as far as I could tell, this didn’t affect the story – which, again, is scrupulously fair and admirable in its depiction of both sides – apart from omitting any mention of Chiang Kai-shek in the scenes set in China, which, as the film covers so much ground, wouldn’t have been necessary anyway.

At times the battle scenes go so far as to feel over the top, almost like a video game. The opening Pearl Harbor sequence, for instance, has a young sailor trying to escape the burning Arizona by climbing across on a rope suspended over flaming waters while Zeros strafe him. Now, for all I know that might have happened, but it feels a little much. Everything being shot from the most dramatic possible angles also lends a sense of unreality and artificiality to the film.

But overall, I was very impressed with the movie, and subsequent consideration has only increased my admiration. Emmerich and his crew have made a true atavism in modern Hollywood; a historical drama that is actually fair and honest about historical events, that presents the men and women of a past age in their own idiom and allows them to speak for themselves rather than being made the mouthpiece for modern platitudes. It is a fitting and honest tribute to the heroism, courage, and skill of the men on both sides who fought one of the most important battles of the twentieth century, and that in itself is a fine thing indeed.

 

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
-Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

Saint John Henry Newman

It’s rare that we get good news from the Church these days, so cherish it when it comes! Cardinal Newman, the great English convert of the 19th century, whose return to Rome sparked something of a Catholic renaissance in that noble, yet obstinate island kingdom, is now declared a Saint. 

Cardinal Newman is one of those writers whom I regard as something of a personal spiritual master – though alas, I haven’t read as much of him as I would like – along with St. Francis de Sales, Dietriech von Hildebrand, and Professor Tolkien. What I mean is that his approach to spirituality, his understanding of the world, and his insights are of the kind that fit especially with my own personality and make the most sense to me. This, incidentally, is one of the glorious things about the Communion of Saints: there are so many and they are all so unique that if one doesn’t make an appeal to you, there are always others who will. The transforming power of Christ can be expressed through an infinity of personalities; in one it leads to the recklessly joyful abandon of a St. Francis, in another the intense focus and genius of a St. Thomas, and in still another the energy and regal authority of a St. Lewis.

St. John Henry Newman (not to be confused – though I’m sure he will be – with St. John Neuman, Bishop of Philadelphia) was more of the St. Thomas school; a crushingly brilliant scholar and masterful writer, he found his way into the Church through careful study of the early fathers and church history, along with his perceptive understanding of the flaws in Anglicanism and Protestantism. The account of this journey he laid down in his masterful autobiography Apologia pro Vita Sua, then later presented a fictionalized account of his experience in Loss and Gain: the Story of a Soul, both of which I have read and highly recommend, not only for their spiritual and theological insights, but also for the beautiful portrait of a now lost world of manners, intellect, and peace: the world of the middle and upper class England of the early-to-mid 19th century. Newman was as much a part of that world as St. Thomas was of the Medieval, and his example and ideas of gentlemanly behavior are, perhaps, as important a witness as any other to us today.

Loss and Gain mostly amounts to intelligent young Englishmen sitting around holding intellectual discussions. For me that’s enough to make it interesting, but I suppose it’s an acquired taste (though there is a very funny scene near the end where the hero is besieged by advocates for fashionable new religious communions, apparently figuring that if he’s considering Rome he must be up for grabs). Apologia is definitely worth reading both for the insight into his own life and for the brilliant argumentation on display (it was prompted by a slanderous attack by the Reverend Charles Kingsley, author of Westward Ho!, who was a virulent anti-Catholic and accused Newman of being secretly in the employ of the Roman Church all along. Seeing the Saint destroy his accusations is a delightful exercise in proper argumentation).

Alas, I’m not in a position to give a really good overview of St. John Henry Newman’s life or works: I’ve read (or listened to) several, but he is a great river and I can’t claim to have explored more than a few stretches. Suffice to say, he is an ornament to the Church, and his kind of clarity and intellectual insight are desperately needed today.

I shall let him have the final word:

“[T]here is no medium, in true philosophy, between Atheism and Catholicity, and…a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here below must embrace either the one or the other.”
-Apologia

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’ encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on;
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on;
I loved the garish day, and spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will; remember not past years.

So long Thy pow’r has blest me, sure it still
Wilt lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

Ora pro nobis.