A sentimental service in a cynical society — our Navy

Sentiment: “refined or tender emotion; manifestation of the higher or more refined feelings.”

Ours is a cynical age.  The traditional values that defined us as Americans (weirdly old-fashioned ideas such as the belief that we are a wholesome, good and honorable culture) seem to have been jettisoned.  Even though I believe the majority of Americans are indeed wholesome, good and honorable, the message of our popular culture is jaded and immoral.

Children pick up on that.  As they head towards adulthood, they strive to imitate the cynical malaise that characterizes the world around them.  For some, it’s a mere pose; for others, it comes to define who they are.  To the extent our culture periodically veers away from cynicism towards sentiment, that sentiment is expressed on talk show couches by famous people and wannabes, all of whom willingly reveal the sordid details of their private lives to an audience of millions, hoping to elicit tears and cheap grace (and, perhaps, big bucks).

Our cynicism is also built into our disposable culture.  Historically, one of America’s sterling virtues has been that, unlike more ancient cultures on other continents, she is forward looking.  Nevertheless, up until recently, even as they were excited about the future, Americans still revered the past, which they saw as necessary underpinning for their endeavors.  American traditions also bound together a disparate population, one that arrived on our shores from all corners of the earth.

In the last generation, however, America has turned on her past with a vengeance.  Yesterday isn’t simply the past, its an embarrassment, whether in politics, pop culture, or education.  If the ideas aren’t of this moment, they are of no moment.  Too often, tradition isn’t something we honor, it’s something we ridicule.

True sentiment — that which taps into our higher and refined feelings, and that looks upon the past as a source of strength, not embarrassment — is hard to find in a society that mass produces crocodile tears for fun and profit, while sneering at that which came before.  I, however, had the great pleasure of attending an event that was indeed a sentimental journey, not into bathos and coarse confessions, but into the realm of bravery, loyalty and tradition (and, as is the case when all true emotions get tapped, lots of laughter).  On June 4th, I attended the 14th annual Battle of Midway Celebration, held to honor the living and the dead who fought at that important battle sixty-nine years ago.

I’m no military historian, and will only embarrass myself if I try to delve too deeply into Midway’s significance.  I do know this, though:  America’s victory there, a victory achieved against overwhelming numerical odds, conclusively established air power’s supremacy in battle, transforming the Navy into a force that dominated land and sea.  The Battle also marked a turning point in the war against the Japanese, destroying their seemingly inevitable Pacific triumph, and laying the groundwork for their ultimate defeat.  It is this triumph that we commemorated.

We are close enough in time to the battle that the victory at Midway isn’t something found only in history books.  It’s written in the flesh and blood of living men.  Six of those men honored us with their presence on Saturday night.  Another two were represented by their widows, so that their stories could still be remembered.

Memory is an important thing, and never more so than in the United States Navy.  This evening was hedged about with tradition and ritual.

After a cocktail party, the Members and guests are piped into the mess (that’s the dining hall for you lay people).  Once in, no one is allowed to leave without the President’s permission.

From the moment the Members and guests are seated, the ritual begins:  Officers’ call; Mr. Vice’s Opening of the Mess; the Parading of the Colors; a short, non-denominational Grace; the Tribute to the Fallen (more about that later); the President’s Welcoming Remarks; the Parading of the Beef (and a delicious beef it was too); delightful badinage between the President, Mr. Vice and the Members; the Recognition of the Heroes of the Battle of Midway; the Remarks from the Guest Speaker (in this case, Admiral Walsh, Commander, Pacific Fleet); and the Formal Toasts, to the President of the United States, to the various branches of the service other than the Navy, to people suggested by the Members (SEAL Team 6, the spouses and other loved ones who support the troops, the women who have served, and many others got their due), with the last toast reserved for the Navy itself.

The program plays out, a perfectly choreographed ceremony, comfortingly familiar to all involved.  Within the big ritual are smaller rituals.  When the room toasts POWS and MIAs, one touches the glass to ones lips, but does not drink, in honor of those who have no food or drink.  The Tribute to the Fallen isn’t merely a moment of silence to acknowledge those who never returned home from the service.  Instead, it is a physical memory in the form of a table set for one, with an empty chair, an inverted glass, a bitter lemon slice, a fragrant rose, and so on, each symbolic of loss and faith.

The Dining Out (a formal Naval dinner to which guests are invited, as opposed to a Dining In, which is sans guests) goes back hundreds of years in military history, back to Europe in the 18th century, when officers would gather together for fun and food.  Both Dining Out and Dining In have changed to accommodate the military’s needs, with World War II playing a large role in limiting the occasion, in both frequency and scope.

Since the War, though, formal Dinings (In and Out) have crept back into the Navy, and I’m not surprised.  The Navy exists in a dynamic global environment, one in which changes to weapons, intelligence, and national allegiances that once took place decades now occur in mere years, or even weeks.  In this shifting world, ritual is a touchstone of normalcy.

Tradition also allows for true sentiment.  The Tribute to the Fallen that I mentioned above isn’t commercial performance, intended to garner Nielsen ratings.  Instead, in a room full of men and women who have served, who are serving, and who intend to serve, it is a reminder of the solemnity of their profession, and of the fraternity that offers both sweet (adventures, camaraderie, a testosterone-rich environment in an otherwise rather feminine culture, and cool stuff, in the form of weapons and equipment) and bitter (death and loss).

The most moving part of the evening, of course, was the Tribute to the Midway Vets.  Each had a story of bravery, fortitude, loyalty and luck.  Here, in honor of his 90th birthday, which he celebrated with us on Saturday, I’ll share with you the slightly abbreviated story of Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Lloyd Childers, of the USS YORKTOWN.

Lt. Col. Childers was then a Navy gunner-radioman in the rear seat of a torpedo-bomber assigned to the YORKTOWN.  His was one of the planes aimed at the Japanese fleet heading for Midway.  Hours after the take off, his place was attacked by a dozen zeroes, both head on and from all sides.

During the battle, Lt. Col. Childers fired a 30 caliber machine gun at the zeroes.  The zeroes returned firing, riddling both the plane and Lt. Col. Childers with bullets, one of which broke a bone in his leg.  Lt. Col. Childers kept firing.  When his machine gun jammed, he grabbed is pistol and kept firing.  “Shooting at the zeroes with a pistol seemed futile,” he later wrote, “but it made me feel better.  Then a miracle occurred — the zeroes left us.”

The zeroes may have been gone, but Lt. Col. Childers’ travails weren’t over.  When his aircraft limped back to the YORKTOWN, it was to discover the ship dead in the water — although Lt. Col. Childers was so weak from blood loss, he was unaware of his plane’s dire situation.  The pilot struggled to find another aircraft carrier, but eventually had to ditch the plane near a destroyer.  When Lt. Col. Childers was pulled from the water, he had perhaps a half hour of life left in him.  He celebrated his 21st birthday in sick bay and, as I said, his 90th birthday with us.  He went on to serve through the remainder of World War II, in the Korean War, and in the Vietnam war, where he commanded a helicopter squadron and eventually flew 300 missions.

Although Lt. Col. Childers survived, so many others didn’t.  As it happened, he was the only surviving gunner in his entire squadron, a sad fact that choked up RADM Thomas Brown III (Ret.), who was retelling Lt. Col. Childers’  story, and that left the rest of us grabbing for hankies or surreptitiously dabbing at our eyes with our napkins.  We weren’t witnessing cheap, pre-manufactured sentiment.  This was the real thing, the “manifestation of the higher or more refined feelings.”

Nor were these higher feelings reserved to those of us with a few years wear and tear.  At the table behind me was a young seaman, a little the worse for alcohol, who reacted with open emotion to each story told.  From behind me, I heard him punctuate the speeches with his own call and response.  “Those were real battles.”  “They were heroes.”  “That was a war.”  “Go, Navy!”   His outbursts were a little distracting but, mostly, I found it charming and, indeed, important that a young man could be so attuned to the traditions and greatness of his branch of the military.

I’ve wandered around a little here, but I trust that you’ll excuse me and give me credit, too, for feeling true sentiment about Midway, about the commemoration, about the Navy and about America’s armed forces generally.  We as Americans, especially those of us who have not served, are so fortunate to have a Constitutional military that, time and time again, has drawn from the ranks of our sons and daughters to defend our country and our freedoms.

May I suggest that, if you feel some positive sentiments towards our military, you show that feeling by joining a military support and education organization.  My pet organization, of course, is the Navy League, but I know that the other branches of the service have similar organizations.  Or think about making a contribution to Soldiers’ Angels or the Wounded Warriors Project or the USO.

Cross-posted at Right Wing News

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