The Guard Is Family

Many service members feel alone. This is especially the case in the reserve components, where people often see their brothers and sisters and arms once a month and struggle more with daily life. At the same time, reservists and guardsmen have bonds that that often surpass those experienced by other service members. We should always remember that the Guard is family.

This past month, our unit held a suicide standdown, where we took a knee and reminded personnel that they are valuable members of the team, that they need to keep an eye on and help each other, and that people who are struggling have many resources available. Most people are aware of the extremely high suicide rates in the military, which are among the highest in the U.S. Service-wide, suicide rates have declined slightly over the past year by about 15 percent, but there has been no similar decline in the National Guard. The reason becomes quickly evident. People whose full-time job is the military are with their brothers and sisters daily, and many of their problems are related to dealing with service. Not so in the reserves, where people struggle with other jobs, with family, and with life outside of service. They deal with the same problems with the rest of the population, but these are compounded by service. Further, since they see their units only occasionally, there are many months between when their issues become noticeable to others.

Yet National Guard units offer other benefits that can help people struggling with behavioral issues. Unlike other services and components, where people are constantly being reassigned and come and go, most enlisted personnel spend their entire careers in only one or two units. This is the case even though most people no longer drill at armories that are down the street – the downsizing of the Guard in most states has largely ended the feeling of a hometown Guard. Nevertheless, though you drive several hours to drill, you are part of a small group of coworkers. You see the same people consistently over several years, even if you only see them a few times per year. You get to know people closer and can see their progress through life as they finish college, enter the workforce, have families, age, and then retire. You go to religious services together, celebrate holidays together, and you hang out after work. Many people maintain these relationships even after they leave the military as they attend luncheons and reunions.

Why, then, has suicide remained so high in the Guard? Part of it is that people are becoming less and less involved in each other’s lives. There is a tendency not to interfere with people, not to meddle, not to be nosy. People embraced “don’t ask, don’t tell” in more ways than one. Part of the reason is how busy everyone has become, not only with work, but with modern media. Everyone is working like a dog, and then you spend your spare time on phones and computers. The cure is to become more involved in each other’s lives. We must get to know each other again. We must know about our coworkers and employees. We must ask them questions about their lives and help to celebrate their milestones. We must make ourselves available even between the one weekend a month. We must check up on each other. Some are reluctant to do so because of not being reimbursed or not having the time, but this is a matter of life or death. It only takes a few minutes to send an email or make call, but these touchpoints mean the world to those who are struggling.

If the Guard is family, this is the least we can do. If these people are our brothers and sisters, we must show a little interest in them, ask questions, get to know them, and reach out to them. It could save their lives. There are enormous advantages to being in a military family, from extensive resources to help people, to having stability outside our often chaotic lives. If you are in trouble, turn to your family. We are ready to help.

© 2022 J.D. Manders


Lucy’s Love for Linus

This week, I watched “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” as I have every Halloween since I was a child. Many people have often found solace and deep meaning in the Peanuts cartoons, and especially in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The Halloween special is no different. In this case, the deepest meaning comes with a loving gesture by Lucy for Linus that has always touched me.

The Peanuts cartoons have been part of the fabric of my life since I was a boy. I watched all of the animated specials each year, and I religiously read the comic strip in the paper until Charles Schulz passed away. There is a simplicity to the strips, which present the views of the children involved – the adults appear only as incomprehensible squawking voices in the background. It reminds me of the prophecy that “a little child shall lead them.” Other than when Linus explains the coming of Christ in the Christmas special, there is no overt religious message in most of the cartoons. They are simply about ordinary children – the bossy sister, the naïve brother, the goofy kid picked on by others, the pretty girl, the tomboy, the brainy girl, the filthy boy, and the neighborhood dog. Yet these characters often present a genuineness and honesty that we don’t find in other cartoons.

Everyone seems to relate to one of the Peanuts children the most. Almost everyone likes Snoopy with his imaginative adventures, his hip attitude, and his “Joe Cool” persona. Some people like Linus because of his faith, his naivety, and his charm. Others relate to Charlie Brown, who is ridiculed and picked on yet remains the center of action in the neighborhood. Some prefer Peppermint Patty or Pigpen or Schroeder or Franklin. The one that most people seem to relate to the least is Lucy, Linus’ sister. Though some may like that she takes charge in almost every situation, her bossy demeanor, her know-it-all attitude, her blatant selfishness, her hostility toward other characters, and her frequent deception of others makes her difficult to like. She is, in a sense, the Pharisee of the Peanuts gang. Like the Pharisees, she prefers rules over faith, refuses to listen to others, and is often arrogant and self-righteous in her treatment of those beneath her. We see this in her ridiculing Linus about his beliefs, in running a psychiatric stand to make extra cash, and in always pulling the football away from Charlie Brown.

All of this in Lucy’s character makes the key moment in “It’s the Great Pumpkin” all the more surprising. You probably know the scene I mean. Her idiot brother, Linus, has stayed in the pumpkin patch all night again waiting for the arrival of the mythical Great Pumpkin. She has scoffed at him throughout the show. Despite this treatment, despite missing candy and parties, despite being rejected by his friends and abandoned by his love interest, Linus stayed all night in the pumpkin patch believing the Great Pumpkin would arrive. Lucy wakes up at four in the morning and checks on her brother. On finding his bed empty and still made, she puts on a coat and goes out to retrieve him, finds him sleeping shivering in the pumpkin patch, and takes him to his room, where she promptly takes off his shoes and tucks him into bed. Despite all the picking, despite her self-righteous attitude, despite her bossiness and hostility, she really cares about her brother deep down. This is the key moment of the show – like Linus’ Christmas speech – when we see God at work in this everyday, nonreligious cartoon. We find out that Lucy is a loving sister after all and that most of her gruff exterior is just show.

We may relate most to Snoopy, Linus, or Charlie Brown, but we should always keep in mind that there’s a little Lucy in all of us. It’s why, although she may not be a favorite, she remains a popular character that people relate to. We are all a little Pharisaical at times, a little self-righteous, a little selfish, and a little arrogant. Yet there comes a moment when we must drop the pretense and just reach out and take care of each other. This is what Lucy did for Linus. If we all could do the same, we would be better off.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

Learning from History: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee

Many people tend to judge historical characters based on their stand on issues that align with modern political opinions. In fact, we find that, like all people, most historical characters are complex, with good traits and bad. Most do not fit neatly into modern categories of correctness. Many make mistakes. Some evolve and become better people, and some don’t. Rather than judging people by how they align with modern politics, we ought to recognize positive traits and accomplishments while condemning the bad. If we do, we find that most people have qualities to admire, and no one has lived a life worth cancelling.

We might take as an example the modern views of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Based simply on an analysis of where they stood on a single issue – slavery – the tendency has been to praise Grant for fighting the war against slavery while condemning Lee for fighting to defend it. If the Confederates were evil for defending the right to slavery, and the Union was good for fighting to eradicate it, then Lee was a bad guy, and Grant was a good guy. Many people view all of history in this light, dividing people into good or evil based on modern political views and then condemning and cancelling those with whom they disagree. This is the justification for tearing down statues and renaming military bases, streets, and courthouses. However, history is much more complicated and does not easily fit into these categories.

In the case of Grant, we find a self-made man from a lower middleclass family. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1843 about halfway through his class. After fighting bravely in the Mexican-American War, he resigned his commission to pursue business, mainly for financial reasons to make more money. During this time, he purchased and owned a slave but did not have the stomach for it and soon after became a staunch abolitionist. When the Civil War came, he was offered a captaincy but held out for higher rank and pay. He accepted an assignment as lieutenant colonel and rose quickly in rank due to his success on the battlefield, though he was often criticized for his bloody approach and for racking up more casualties than other commanders. He was also criticized for forcing labor from freed slaves and for his apparent alcoholism. Despite his personal failings, Abraham Lincoln appointed him as the commander of all Union forces, and he defeated Lee at Appomattox, Virginia. After the war, Grant was elected president in 1868. Historians have generally criticized the corruption of his administration – his pursuit of money continued to be a problem – but he nevertheless received praise for helping to reconcile the South, ending reconstruction, and providing immediate equality to former slaves.

Lee, meanwhile, came from a famous Virginia family owning a large plantation and many slaves. He graduated from West Point in 1829 second in his class. He also holds the distinction of being only one of five cadets who earned no demerits while at school. He served faithfully in the military, including the Mexican-American War. Unlike Grant, however, Lee remained in the Army, eventually serving as Superintendent of West Point. He took off only two years to run his family plantation after not being able to find an overseer. Although later accused of treating his slaves poorly, most historians have seen this as the result of applying the strict disciple to which he was used. In 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union to join the Confederacy. Lee opposed the rebellion, but he felt honor-bound to support his state. He quickly proved a great tactical commander and won many battles. He was remembered as a highly honorable leader, just and kind towards his men and enemies alike. However, he eventually lost due to the North’s greater manpower and industrialization. Despite calls for him to refuse surrender, he believed it more honorable to save lives. After the war, he opposed former Confederates continuing the war, and he sought reconciliation, even going so far as meeting Grant in the White House. He also opposed raising statues of Confederate leaders, whom he felt were unworthy. He supported the manumission of slaves but believed that they ought to receive an education before being admitted to citizenship. He briefly served as president of Washington University before dying in 1870.

One can make many comparisons between Grant and Lee. For most, what is important is that Grant opposed slavery and won the war, while Lee was a slaveowner and lost. Yet both of their views were complex. Lee opposed slavery in general as an institution incompatible with liberty, and though he reluctantly accepted slavery, he sought a more practical approach to freeing slaves. Meanwhile, Grant was opposed to slavery and did much to advance equality, but he nevertheless had no qualms about forcing freedmen to work for him if it served his goals. Grant made his career serve his ambitions, while Lee continually sought a career of service and training. Grant was a self-made man and much more money-driven, which got him into trouble while president. He was practical in his approach to warfare and sought to win no matter the cost. Lee, meanwhile, was driven by honor and service. He cared for his men and surrendered to save lives. Both seemingly learned from their mistakes. Grant later came to seek for reconciliation with his former enemies, and Lee came to regret his support of the Confederacy and opposed continuing the fight. While modern politicians tend to view them only through a single lens, they were much more complicated than often recognized.

In reviewing their legacies, it is Grant’s and Lee’s change of heart that is most striking. Both recognized their mistakes and sought to reconcile a nation that remained divided for a decade after the Civil War. In the end, this is the trait that is most admirable and from which this generation most needs to learn. Let us also have the humility and wisdom to recognize our shortcomings and seek reconciliation with those we once wished to destroy. Sometimes history is complex. Let us hope we learn from it.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

When Life Isn’t Fair

We’ve all heard children say, “It isn’t fair.” Most children have an innate sense of fairness or justice, often because they’ve not yet been conditioned to see differences in outcomes. This is why so many children raise issues of unfairness when they see it, especially when it concerns themselves. While many parents simply dismiss such statements, they provide a perfect teaching moment to help them understand what fairness is and the best ways to address it.

Many parents, when they hear their children complain about being treated unfairly, have a tendency to dismiss it by reminding them that “life isn’t fair.” While this sentiment is certainly true – life is often unfair – and children must learn at some point that things will not always go their way, you must ask yourself is this the lesson that you want your children to gain? Life is also cruel, but this doesn’t mean that you want to expose your children to cruelty. Most children understand that life isn’t always fair, for they likely have already been mistreated at some point, by teachers, by other children or parents, or simply by circumstances not always going their way. What they are looking for is help in understanding why something their parents have done seems unfair, and justifying tyrannical decisions simply because life is unfair is not always helpful.

Rather than trying to teach them that life is unfair, you could use the situation to explain the differences in equality, equity, and fairness or justice. There are several graphics out there, which you’ve probably seen, that try to show the differences in these terms. The most popular is a picture of a tall man, a young man, and a child trying to look over a wooden fence. In an equal solution, they all receive the same remedy – a single crate on which to stand – which does not help the child because even with the crate he is still too short to see over the fence. It’s a one-size-fits-all solution. An equitable solution is to give everyone exactly what they need – the tall man needs no crate, the young man needs one, the child needs two. It’s dependent on what a person needs. A just or fair solution, however, might be to replace the wooden fence with a chain link one so that they all can see without being given help. It removes what was causing the inequity to begin with. In a like manner, the best approach is not to give people aid or try to figure out what they need but to change the system or circumstances to avoid the situation.

Of course, in real life the situation is almost always more complex than this simple drawing. Equality can mean giving everyone the same thing, but that’s not the only or even the primary definition. In mathematics, equal means a sum, value, or outcome that’s the same, meaning that everyone ends up in the same place. However, as many people observe, outcome is also dependent on the effort put into it. This is why some people talk about equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome. Equality can also mean that everyone’s the same, which is clearly untrue. There are differences in sexes, ages, and capabilities and desires. Equality of opportunity or equality before the law doesn’t mean everyone is exactly the same. Meanwhile, while equity is often defined as giving someone what they need to get to the same place, it can also mean being impartial. However, impartiality can sometimes result in decisions that some people may not like, such as randomly selecting who gets to play with a toy. Justice may mean changing a system or equalizing the scale by helping one group over another, but it more often means people getting what they deserve. Whenever I complained about being punished for something I didn’t do, my mother would always ask if I had done nothing that deserved punishment, a valid point.

Parents can raise any of these points when talking to their child. Is it always right to give people the same thing, or is it sometimes more important to give people what they actually need or deserve? If one child likes reading, and one likes sports, is it fair to reward them both with time outside to play? If one child did chores and the other didn’t, is it fair for them both to get the same time off? Some children are older and need more space or privacy. Is it fair to expect them to share their room or closet? It might be fair for all three children to have a room, but if your house only has two rooms, what is a fair sleeping arrangement? If two children both want to play with a toy, would the children be happy if you flipped a coin, and they lost? Asking questions such as these helps children to understand that equality of outcome may not always be fair, that impartiality or justice may not turn out the way they want, and that sometimes the fairest solution is unavailable, forcing parents to make merit-based decisions. Regardless, parents must make absolutely clear that, whatever differences may exist in the children, their abilities, or their situations, a parent’s love and God’s love for them will always be unchanging.

Sometimes life is unfair, but that doesn’t mean that the decisions parents make have to be. Sometimes efforts at equality, equity, or justice don’t turn out the way we expect, or it requires balancing one value against another. Helping children understand why parents make the decisions they do not only can diffuse angst about a current decision; it also helps children appreciate the differences in values and approaches in the future. When life isn’t fair, use it as a lesson to teach.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

How to Answer Deep Questions

I recently had a friend who told me about her daughter asking a question about why an eternal God created a mortal world. I shared with him questions my own daughters had sometimes raised, such as how God can be sovereign and still give people free will. Most parents receive questions like these from children at some point. How we answer them can make the difference in how your children perceive truth, God, and our relationship to Him. It is critical that we know how to answer deep questions.

All children ask deep questions at some point, such as about the character of God, if Jesus is the Son of God, the nature of free will and predestination, the reason for certain doctrines, what is sin, etc. Sometimes they come out randomly as the result of something they hear at school, at church, or just talking to friends. Many times, my daughter’s questions came as a result of watching a movie or television. When she watched The Incredibles, she asked if everyone has a superpower? When she watched the post-apocalyptic show, “The 100,” she asked why teenagers acted the way they did. When she watched the Hitchcock movie, Rope, she asked why some people believed there should not be moral restraints. Sometimes, I would introduce a movie or show specifically to raise certain questions so we could discuss it. Most of the time, it just sort of happened when I least expected it.

The question most parents usually ask is, what should I do when my children ask such deep questions? The thing you shouldn’t do is to tell them you don’t care or have time or that they should just shut up with their questions. You’ve been given a great opportunity to share your views about the most important questions in the universe, about philosophy, theology, or wisdom. Shutting down your children at this moment will have lasting consequences. First, it teaches them that the nature of life and reality are unimportant to you and that it ought to be unimportant to them. Second, it teaches them that if they want answers to deep questions, they will have to go somewhere else, and that usually means either a friend (who may not have very good answers) or another authority figure, such as a religious leader (with whom you may not agree). You should always be willing to answer their questions; that’s the way most people learn.

The best thing to do is to provide an honest answer if you can. By honest, I mean what you actually think and not simply what you think your spouse would say or what your religion teaches. The problem is that many people don’t have an opinion or have problems expressing their views. If you don’t have an opinion about deep questions, perhaps it would be worth your time to give some thought about them in advance. A man I greatly respect once told me that everyone should know enough about whatever they believe to defend it. If you haven’t done so, children can force you to take stock of your faith. If you don’t know why you believe something, it would be worthwhile reading up on it, especially if you know a question is coming. You ought to explore different views or talk to pastors or teachers. If something unexpected comes up, it’s okay to say that you haven’t thought about it or that you need time to think about it. Spend a few minutes considering the answer or do some research and get back with them. This gives you a chance to have multiple conversations about these deep subjects.

If you have problems expressing your opinion – and many people do ­– you can do the same thing. You can research it or talk to someone about it, so that you get your answer right. I don’t mean memorizing someone else’s answers but trying to get enough of an understanding about an issue to be able to talk through it. If the situation demands an immediate answer, and you don’t have time to brush up on the subject, it’s okay to stumble through what you want to say. Your children are looking for your honest views however delivered, not an eloquent exposition on the subject. Just getting out your views helps them to understand where you’re coming from. If you need more information, you can google questions on the fly to provide them with references or to inject the views of someone they respect.

It’s also okay to get their help. A lot of parents ask their children questions first. This is called the Socratic method. Socrates believed the best way of teaching was to question something. Sometimes asking questions helps you know what your children are looking for, or it may help you in using terminology they understand. Sometimes you may agree with how they answer it. Sometimes it helps you to frame your answer based on what they already think, using their views as a sounding board. You can ask what their friends think, and this may help you see whether they are under peer pressure. You can ask follow-up questions to find out why they are asking or to get clarification about different aspects of a question. This helps to broaden the discussion and can clue you in more specifically about what the real issue is so you will be able to answer it better. You end up learning a lot about your child simply by having a conversation.

The Bible says that we should always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks for the hope within us. This is good advice whether you believe the Bible or not. You should always be able to talk about deep questions, especially with children. They are going to ask, so you might as well be prepared. Rather than shutting them down or sending them to someone else, take this special opportunity to answer their questions. It might be the best opportunity you have to get to know and influence your child.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

Our Strange Attraction to Royalty

The news of the passing of Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II has resulted in an outpouring of sympathy. It has also highlighted an obsession that many Americans seem to feel toward monarchy. We see this in our interest in all things related to foreign nobility and in our outlandish treatment of visiting royals, not only as foreign government officials or celebrities, but as people to whom we owe some kind of allegiance or honor. This strange attraction to royalty reveals our inner need for a king.

I am not here talking about monarchial government. I believe in republican or democratic forms of government. History repeatedly demonstrates the evils that result when a single person or party holds too much power, whether king, dictator, president, or politburo. The colonialist attitude of Queen Elizabeth, even though it occurred early in her reign, continues to draw criticism from many commentators. Instead, most Americans believe we reach our potential when given the motivation and liberty to be successful while being protected from tyranny. Likewise, neither is there a desire to establish permanent classes of aristocracy or wealth. Most people are unimpressed by wealth and class, especially when they become involved in politics. In other words, when I talk about attraction to royalty, I don’t mean a desire to establish a monarchy or aristocracy. In any case, even though the British monarchy is the titular head of their government, it has been many generations since kings and queens held any real power or even political influence.

Neither am I speaking just about interest in the history of the monarchy, although this certainly contributes to the attraction for some people. I have long been an Anglophile and a Medievalist. I like British comedy, science fiction, literature, and history. I loved studying British history when in college, especially the Middle Ages, and I continue reading about it when I can. Other than the brief Interregnum after the execution of King Charles I, the history of the British monarchy has remained a constant factor in the history of Britain, from the dominance of the kings of Wessex over local competing kings until today. This kind of longevity has no precedent in the U.S., where anything over two hundred years is old. There is a sense that here is something established, ancient, and traditional. Others seem to like the modern monarchy with all its drama, personality conflicts, and family history – it’s like a real-life Downton Abbey or soap opera. This is why so many seem to follow the travails of Prince Harry and Meghan despite their personal unpopularity. You can’t look away. While this is not something that interests me, I appreciate certain aspects of more modern royal history, which reiterates appreciation for this ancient institution.

It is difficult to put one’s finger on what attracts most people to royalty. The sense of history is part of it. The monarchy is old and highly traditional, giving a feeling of archaism and quaintness. Much like the Catholic Church, there is an air of symbolism that reminds us of something we once forgot, that touch our spirits directly. Kings and queens are unfamiliar to those in the states, and this leads to a feeling of otherworldliness. Many democrats act like royals are somehow above them because they understand that there are dominions that are above our tawdry politics. We yearn for a person or cause to rally behind, a figure who can rise above our institutions and unite us. We desire someone who is part of a true nobility, of heart and duty. We want a chivalrous knight to save the day. In short, we all want a king, someone who rules benevolently to help us become better than we are, whose benefice provides for us, whose power and might protects us, whose majesty awes us. Some people might not put it precisely this way. They would stress that they want the freedom to not be ruled over by a tyrant, even when they are looking toward government to do the same things. They thus prove that, deep down, we all have a desire for help in our current situation to restore order, justice, decency, and mercy.

I need not point out that the royals of Britain, or of any other country, are ultimately not going to fulfill this need for a king. They are too damaged, too corrupt, too spoiled, and too unreliable, as all people are. There is only one kingdom that will fulfill our need, and it exists in a spiritual domain. There is only one king who can help us, and that is God. Whenever we recognize that strange obsession with royalty in ourselves, it is to this king that we should turn, for only He can fulfill our desires.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

The Book Is Always Better

The recent publication of Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, has received both praise and criticism. The most severe criticism has come from what I call Tolkien purists, who hate most the show’s departures from his books. While one should always make allowances for film, it is a reminder that the book is always better than the movie.

Like many people, I huddled down to watch the first two episodes of “The Rings of Power” this weekend. Overall, I liked what I saw, mainly because I believe the material Tolkien wrote outside of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings deserves a fuller telling. Most people are unaware of the vast world that Tolkien created, not just as background for his first two published works, but as a lengthy mythology detailed first in the Silmarillion and more recently in The Children of Hurin, Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin. I found the vision of Middle Earth the show presented quite beautiful, with broad vistas, varying landscapes, and hidden ruins that give a sense of long history and fueled a desire to want to know more. Film excels at visualizing the descriptions of books, and “The Rings of Power” is no exception. I particularly found the depiction of Valinor quite moving. While the show may not match precisely the imaginations of some readers – each reader brings his own interpretation to written descriptions – it supplements and often replaces such visions with the film creator’s own. For those who are unfamiliar with the books or who lack such vision, film is an invaluable aid.

I largely dismiss the largest criticism of the show, which is the inclusion of people of color in the cast. I would prefer to generously assign the motivation for such criticism as a desire to be true to the world of Tolkien than racism per se, a term that is overused. England was, after all, mostly Anglo-Saxon at the time Tolkien wrote. Nevertheless, the books themselves rarely describe the color of people, which was unimportant to the plot, and since the races he describes are imaginary, there is broad room for interpretation. We must also remind ourselves that actors portray someone else, and as long as there is a suspension of disbelief, they need not always be precisely like their character. In the past, Shakespeare used young boys to play girls, and James Barrie used a young girl to play Peter Pan. It might perhaps be understandable to object to actors too unlike their characters, such as a petite woman playing a strapping male warrior or to a red-headed actor playing someone explicitly described as blond. However, I found nothing in the show that stretched credibility or was inappropriate. Rather, this criticism tells us more about the views of the critic than about the show or the book.

A more difficult criticism to counter is that the show’s producers and writers departed wildly from the story of Tolkien. The show follows the general outline of the Silmarillion and appendices of The Lord of the Rings, but within that outline it takes many liberties. In some cases, this is to simplify the story. Some may complain about the lack of explanation of how the elves came to Valinor or the reason for the return of the Noldor to Middle Earth, but one has to make allowances for compressing 300 pages into a five-minute introduction. It is always possible that they introduce or refer to some of these elements later. Other changes were the result of simplifying the action. It is natural for producers to want to reduce the story to a handful of main characters rather than trying to introduce the hundreds of characters that Tolkien describes over a history of thousands of years. Thus, we find Galadriel and Elrond involved in parts of the plot that did not involve them in the books. At the same time, the show added some storylines and characters not in the books to keep the viewer’s interest, such as the interaction of Galadriel and her father or the deeds of the Harfoots. For the most part, these changes were in keeping with the books. Less forgivable were the changes in the trajectory of character arcs. Making Elrond into a dissimulating and self-interested politician or suggesting Galadriel as driven primarily by revenge rather than redemption were unnecessary and not true to Tolkien.

These criticisms raise general problems with making books into films, which have been true with every book almost without exception. Film adaptations always take shortcuts. This is partly because some sections of books don’t translate well into film, such as inner voices, and partly because books are far more complicated than movies, with more characters, plotlines, and locations. Film is a visual adaptation, not a full retelling of a book. A thousand-page book could result in a dozen hours of screentime, which is neither cost-effective nor marketable. Further, a film is a reflection of the views of its makers, which do not always align with the vision of the author. How script writers shorten a book, how actors portray characters, and how directors cut the film all contribute to the final product. Producers always need to be wary of drifting too far from the author’s vision, especially when the main thing that attracts people to Tolkien is his worldview of valor, mercy, and redemption. It is a reminder that, while films can be a good introduction, they can never replace a book. To grasp all of the details and to see clearly an author’s vision, it will always be necessary to read the book.

Once we understand the differences in film and books, we can understand why the producers of “The Rings of Power” made many of the changes they did, although some changes were unnecessary and detract from the power of Tolkien’s story. Nevertheless, to truly understand the vast background of the characters, to appreciate the majesty and beauty of Tolkien’s mythology, and to see clearly his vision of reality, it is necessary to read his books. This is true of any film adaption of literature. The book is always better.

© 2022 J.D. Manders  

Lessons from Afghanistan

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the U.S. departure from Afghanistan. For those of us who have deployed to Afghanistan, it is a moment of reflection to see what lessons we have learned. Despite the fact that the events have proved a watershed moment (no matter how you define it), it appears that no lessons have been learned to date, and few if any changes have been made in the framework for decisions made. It is even unclear whether voters have learned anything from it. There are, nevertheless, several lessons that we ought to apply.

In April 2021, President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. would withdraw all forces from Afghanistan, ending the 20-year war. He predicted at the time that it was unlikely Afghanistan would fall or that there would be a Saigon moment of U.S. forces fleeing the country. Both predictions proved false as the Taliban quickly gained control of the country due to Afghanistan forces folding. On August 18, 2021, the Taliban seized Kabul, leading to the chaotic evacuation of thousands of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies. Although the U.S. military heroically carried out one of the most successful evacuation missions in history, the final moments of our involvement in Afghanistan were tarnished by the victory of the Taliban, the death of 13 service members from continued terrorist attacks, and hundreds of people and millions of dollars of equipment left behind.

However one defines it, the retreat from Afghanistan was a turning point. It was a political turning point – the president’s approval rating, which had been relatively high at the time, dropped six points overnight and has continued to decline. More than half of people polled disapproved of the way the U.S. left, and an equal number continue to disapprove of current U.S. foreign policy. It was a diplomatic turning point. Many point to incursions by Russia and China as being a result of their perceptions of U.S. weaknesses or untrustworthiness, which U.S. allies continue to express after not being consulted in advance of the decision to withdraw. Some have even seen it as a turning point in world history, arguing it demonstrates the decline of U.S. world leadership and more broadly western dominance. The withdrawal was also a turning point among Enduring Freedom veterans and the U.S. military in general. More than 70 percent of veterans believe the U.S. did not withdraw honorably and report feeling “angry,” “betrayed,” or “humiliated.” As a result, many veterans have retired at a time when recruiting is down. If parallels are drawn with Vietnam, the psychological implications will be felt far into the future as the U.S. struggles with morale and its own image in the world.

One would think we would be trying to learn all we can from this failure, but despite the momentous events of the withdrawal, there has yet to be a full public review of the events or a major effort to hold anyone accountable. While the Army conducted a lengthy investigation, the president rejected key findings. There have been after action reports conducted by military units, but no major recommendations have publicly emerged that correct the decisions leading to the disaster. The administration itself has not published any official report, as though everything went according to plan. Congressional inquiries have been brief and limited mainly to the minority party. Possibly more reports are coming, but the delay has had enormous impact on morale and foreign policy. No one has taken responsibility or borne the blame, with most blaming others. No one stepped down in shame for the perceived failure. No known intelligence or military personnel have been fired. This would suggest that there have been no lessons learned, no changes made in U.S. policy, no adjustments in the personnel who made the key decisions about the withdrawal. It is not even clear if voters learned anything. We won’t know for another two months whether the debacle will change how people vote.

Nevertheless, there are lessons we ought to learn. One is that the war in Afghanistan was worthwhile. How many of us believe that, if the U.S. had not intervened, there would have been no further attacks on the U.S.? We maintained U.S. security for nearly two decades because the U.S. military pursued terrorists wherever they arose. Veterans ought to feel proud that they contributed to the safety of their homes. Another lesson is that the U.S. military still plays a key role in the world. The recent strike against Al Qaeda leader Aymen al-Zawahri in Kabul, while widely praised, has demonstrated that terrorists have regained a foot in the country. How many believe this would have been possible if the U.S. and its allies had maintained a nominal presence in Afghanistan and continued to support the local government? The vacuum created whenever we withdraw from regions ought to demonstrate the importance the U.S. continues to play on the world stage. A third lesson is that national service remains important. What will our Army look like if no one joins? Will the U.S. be able to continue intervening in world affairs if the Army declines to only a few hundred thousand? Will we be able to maintain peace and protect the homeland for much longer? Such questions ought to stir us to become more involved in serving the nation, both through military and government service.

There are, of course, other lessons we could learn. Many are political, diplomatic, or historical. It is possible that future reviews may better address these. More important in the short-term is to recognize the importance of military service. It is what kept our nation safe for two decades, and what will keep us safe in the future. Service is good, and it is only by people being willing to serve that we are able to maintain our safety and way of life. Unless we want to see extremists gain a foothold here as they have in Afghanistan, someone must be willing to protect our people. If not us, who?

© 2022 J.D. Manders  

When Ideology Dominates Fiction

J.R.R. Tolkien often said, “I dislike allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory,” and C.S. Lewis denied that the Chronicles of Narnia were allegorical. Those who see these authors as writers of religion- or morality-tinged fantasy are often surprised by this, yet most artists throughout time have been opposed to overtly ideological works. Despite this, many modern authors, publishers, and producers appear to have accepted that it is their job to evangelize their views through storytelling. As a result, the quality of these works as stories continue to decline.

In the minds of Tolkien and Lewis, using fiction to make ideological, moral, or religious points was a sure sign of poor writing. Tolkien said “explicit” inclusion of “moral and religious truth (and error)” is “fatal.” It was fine when someone applied his writings to support certain views, but this was not the same as intentionally including ideology. “One resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” Lewis, meanwhile, believed writing in this way would result in a story that was more a form letter than fiction. “Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children…then collected information about child psychology… then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all purse moonshine. I couldn’t write that way at all.” This appears to be how certain authors and publishers seem to approach writing – determine your target audience and write stories that carry a specific ideological message rather than trying to tell a good story that gives pleasure to readers.

This does not mean that it is impossible to determine an author’s viewpoint from his writing. “There is a ‘moral’, I suppose, in any tale worth telling,” Tolkien wrote. There are patterns, universal truths, and beliefs that are always apparent.  We can find examples of hubris in the elves, greed in the dwarves, and avoiding death among men. However, this is not a matter of “didactic purpose,” but arises naturally from Tolkien’s belief in good and evil (for example). Likewise, Lewis has explained that he did not intentionally include Christian elements in in the Chronicles of Narnia. “At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.” Rather, all of his writings began as images or scenes that became connected as he fleshed them out in his writings. In the case of both, their Christian views are easy to see, but this was not due to any conscious decision on their part. Rather, they simply sought to tell a good story. “They start out from opposite ends,” Tolkien said. The same ought to be true whether the author is a Christian or atheist, a liberal or conservative. Let their beliefs come forth but let them focus on writing an interesting story rather than forcing on readers a lot of boring ideology. Believe me, readers, and especially children, can see the difference.

At the same time, we ought to point out that much of the appeal of Tolkien and Lewis compared to modern authors is because their underlying viewpoints leads to characters who are more interesting and relatable to most people. Tolkien added that “the only perfectly consistent allegory is a real life” and “the better and more closely woven a story is the more easily can those so minded find allegory in it.” For Tolkien, it was a world in which those with valor stand up against evils such as domination of others, in which fate guides ordinary people to make a difference in the world’s struggle, and in which evil corrupts and good drives others to liberty. In the case of Lewis, he created a world (Narnia) that needed redemption from evil just the same as ours, in which children play just as important a part in defeating evil as adults. Such themes are universal and appeal to the experience and beliefs of ordinary people more consistently than the political dribble that seems to be dominating modern fiction.

There are important uses for allegory and for more overtly ideological writing. I have told stories in which I recognized the religious elements in them before starting, but I always came to a point where the story and characters moved past my intent. They had to if I were to remain faithful to my art and continue to attract readers. Whatever instruction they get comes out naturally because the stories reflect my own values. I generally find most people just want to read a good tale, and my preference is to tell a story that appeals to as many people as possible. Sadly, too many modern authors and publishers will only recognize this when their readership declines to include only those of the same mind. The rest of us will go on reading tales to which we can relate.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

Is Service in Decline?

Most service members are aware of the recent news that the Army failed to meet its recruiting goals for 2022 by more than 30,000. For the first time in decades, the active Army is now below 450,000 members. Yet it is not just the Army. Every branch of the military is struggling with meeting recruiting goals to maintain the force, but none so dramatic. The reasons for this decline vary, but ultimately it comes down to whether people are willing to serve the nation or not.

Some sources blame the low recruiting on the politicization of the military. For those on the right, it is because of the Army becoming “woke.” They blame transgender training, political witch hunts, and vaccine or mask mandates – the service is about to discharge some 60,000 people who refused to get a COVID vaccination. They argue if you appeal increasingly to people on the left, who are statistically less likely to serve, and demonize people on the right, who are statistically more likely, the result can only be a decline in numbers. Meanwhile, those on the left blame toxic masculinity, right-wing extremism, and bigotry. The military continues to have a higher percent of sexual assaults than the rest of society, and it has long been a haven for the pro-gun lobby. The bigger problem is that people are applying politics of any flavor to the military, which erodes confidence that the U.S. military is professional and apolitical, serving the whole nation. Polls show that trust in the military has declined 25 percent since 2018 to 45 percent of those who responded from both political persuasions. If political leaders continue to inject politics into the military, declining professionalism, trust, and recruiting will likely be the result.

The military in general blames the declining eligibility of people as being the main issue impacting recruiting. Today, only 23 percent of people aged 17 to 24 are eligible for service due to weight, drug use, or criminal records. This is down 6 percent from 29 percent in 2018. With a smaller pool that is eligible, recruiting is naturally down. As a result, the Army is waiving some requirements, for example, by recruiting obese people and putting them on a rigorous weight loss program to help them meet standards and by allowing those with non-felony convictions to serve. They are also offering more bonuses to provide a financial incentive. Those who have been in the service for a long time have seen all of this before, since the military has periodically taken such actions to maintain numbers in the past. These efforts may delay the decline or make up for five or ten percent of losses. It is unlikely, however, that these alone can make up for the large declines in recruiting seen recently.

While both politicization and eligibility are no doubt contributing to recruiting declines, the larger problem is an overall decline in a desire to serve. Of those eligible, only 9 percent in polls say they have any inclination to do so, the lowest number since 2007. In the past, having family members who served was a major influence. In 1995, 40 percent had relatives who had served. Today, it’s only 13 percent. As the number of people serving in the military in each generation has declined, the numbers familiar with military service have also declined. Most people – 75 percent – are unfamiliar with the Army at all. Some of the reasons why fewer people want to serve are political – if you teach people the U.S. is evil, why would they want to die for their country? If you say patriots are extremists, why should they want to serve? Yet the bigger reason is simply that fewer people are interested in serving anywhere, in jobs, in the military, or in government. Many industries are having problems filling jobs and keeping them filled. Most people have no loyalty to any company or nation and so only work until they find something better, or they are forced to do something they don’t like. Likewise, more than half of those who are eligible for military service believe they would have emotional or physical problems if they serve in the military, meaning they would be forced to do something that harms them. In short, more people are looking out only for themselves and do not want to make a long-term commitment.

I have repeatedly written about Roman views of the necessity of service for civilization to survive (such as here, here, and here). Romans believed that it was public virtue – service and placing the needs of the state over others – was what made their state successful. Everyone from the emperor down to the lowest slave served the state in some way and loved their country. Most historians believe it was the decline in service that led to the fall of Rome. If we want recruiting to improve and our military to remain strong, we must teach our children the importance of service, sacrifice, and hard work. Only when people want to serve can our nation thrive.

© 2022 J.D. Manders