Bortchen [BȎR-chen] to grumble, kvetch. To note emotively

In last week’s inaugural Front Bortchen, I mentioned my recent weekend backpacking jaunt covering Maryland’s 42-mile portion of the Appalachian Trail. Leave it to the Marines to one up that. Here at the Naval Academy, Michael Sears heads much of the important leadership development work at the Stockdale Center and hosts a podcast series called “Ethics and the Naval Warrior”. He recently interviewed Stockdale Center director Joe Thomas about what the idea of finishing strong. Both men are Marines and spent some time in the interview swapping sea stories.

In particular, Sears recalled an occasion when his battalion completed a series of 20-mile yomps – at pace and in full gear. Now, at the end of my 20-mile Saturday hike last week I enjoyed flame-grilled pizza and hot soup while encamped on the AT with my naked feet resting on the warm stones around our fire. Turns out, not so the Marines. They arrived and were immediately ordered to dig in, set up weapons systems, establish a perimeter, and so on. No pizza in sight. Adding his own experiences to the recollection, Thomas noted that Sears’ forced march is called a “movement to contact.” The hike isn’t the point, it’s a part of getting to the point – it’s one aspect of prepping for the fight. The applications to life at and beyond the Naval Yard are many. Among them, Thomas reminds us, as Academy firsties—seniors—enter their final semester, of the importance of recognizing that the degree ceremony at year’s end is best called “commencement,” not graduation. The term is wisely chosen. To graduate is to point the focus on a thing accomplished. Commencement, of course, is the beginning of something new; the Mids are moving off to the Navy and Marine Corps to do new and greater things and to face greater challenges. Their four years have been a movement to contact.

To be sure, both graduation and commencement are important. It’s right to take stock of what you’ve accomplished and to celebrate. It’s important to point to others and to proclaim the good they have done (even God took time to evaluate what He had made and to acknowledge it was, all of it, good). But it’s critical to accept that, most often, there really is no finish line. The Midshipmen at the Academy know, in a way civilian undergraduates mostly do not, that their studies are an effort to prepare for the fight, to grab every scrap of time available to them “left of boom” and to make themselves as ready as possible for contact.

The connection to the spiritual life is clear. We are in our prep time. This may not involve prepping on a rifle range or sharpening our Ka-Bar and digging in, but we’re in a movement to contact ahead of the ultimate boom. Whether we know it or not, we are already shaping our five hundred year plan, our thousand. In Lewisian imagery, we are developing either into that kind of creature happy to spend eternity in the presence of the Divine or that kind of creature who would much rather retreat and spend their time “right of boom” in hell.

It’s a curious thing. It’s not only the grim, the terrible, or the violently kinetic that needs preparing for. Glory, too, is an acquired taste.

Last Wednesday marked the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. I’ve written extensively about the Shoah and the problem of evil in Hebraic thought—including a piece dispatched while attending ceremonies at Auschwitz during the 75th anniversary. But I doubt I have ever managed to accomplish in those many words what the great Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks achieved in a two minute video he recorded five years ago. Reflecting on the occasion when he himself first stood at the ruined gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau, Rabbi Sack couldn’t help asking the question that so many inevitably ask in that terrible place: “Where was God?” Where was God when a million and a quarter human beings, including a quarter of a million children, were gassed and immolated? His answer is profound in its devastating simplicity: “God was there in the words, ‘Thou shall not murder.’” What follows that simple insight is a brief and nourishing introduction to the problem and the glory of human freedom and responsibility. The video is essential viewing. For those who want more, I expound on similar thoughts in my (longer) essay: Two kinds of freedoms. I commend both to your attention.

I’ve just started reading Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle, the 1968 novel that has topped the reading lists of the Joint Chief of Staff, Commandant of the Marine Corps, West Point, and countless other higher headquarters since its publication. I’m barely 200 pages into this 1200-page tome and it’s already clear: this is remedial reading. What have I been doing with myself? In his introduction to the volume I hold, Gen. (Ret) John Vessey, Jr. writes that the book captures “the spirit, the heart, and, yes, the soul of the officer corps.” But this knife has a sharp swage. The story follows both a soldier named Sam Damon and his adversary, fellow officer Courtney Massengale. Damon embodies selfless service. He is the consummate soldier who rises through the ranks through exemplary field command and who puts duty, honor, and the men he commands above self-interest. Massengale—he hasn’t come into my reading yet—will by all accounts depict the self-serving ambition of the officer without honor. He will rise through the ranks through cunning and political connections, driven by a lust for power that is absent any real concern for the welfare of soldiers. Every soldier knows he ought to be a Sam Damon. Indeed, to be a “Courtney Massengale” is, so I’m told, a well-worn pejorative in certain military circles. Still, it’s clear that both men bear that alpha wolf admixture of ambition and aptitude, neither of which are wrong per se—and some reviewers caution against simplistic binaries. We need to recognize in Damon crucial shortcomings just as we ought to recognize in Massengale the presence of not insignificant genius. Wisdom—as well charity—demands that we diligently praise what ought to be praised and critique or condemn what ought to be condemned and critiqued. The more crucial difference between Damon and Massengale, I suspect, will turn on what proves to be the objects of their love. Damon will continue to exhibit other-centered love even at his own expense. Massengale will be prove to be all about self-centered love at other’s expense. Character will prove the tell-all.

You should pick yourself up a copy – or dust off your old one – and read along with me. The only thing better than reading a good book, is reading one with friends.