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MIDWAY: The Heroism of Small Steps

One wonders today whether one can do Veteran’s Day without politicized jingoism. Today support for the military, the flag, and patriotism has itself become a culture war battlefield. Public affirmations of patriotism today seem to border on religious idolatry. A Christian believer must always be cautious against jingoism, a kind of Constantinian loyalty to state that undermines our priority of a kingdom witness and our citizenship to heaven. But excesses in this regard should not cause us to fail to appreciate the lives and sacrifices of our military.

I never served in the military as my father did in the Navy. It is a life long regret. Such was the consequence of coming to age at the close of the Vietnam War. The stigma then toward military service was palpable due to the draft and an unpopular war. Today things are very different. We have a professional military class, representing 1% of the U.S. population, who are being asked to engaged in endless war. The systemic PTSD in the military is a natural consequence. And so the voice of democratic presidential candidate Major Tulsi Gabbard deserves our attention. It is clear that our military foreign policy would be different if we still had a draft and if our military adventures engaged the lives of all our nation’s citizens. Respect for our military and an unconscious assumption of empire are not the same thing.

Thus we cannot watch a movie about the most important naval battle in American history, the Battle of Midway, without remembering that it took place in an entirely different cultural and political context. This military battle is considered the turning point in the United States war with Imperial Japan. Some military historians even place it on par with the Battles of Salamis and Trafalgar. Its importance is highlighted by the fact that eight or nine movies have been already made about it.

And so the release of German filmmaker Roland Emmerich’s film, “Midway,” this week was rightly met with some skepticism. He is known for his flair for special effects-driven action and is perhaps best known for “Godzilla” (1998) “Independence Day” (1996) and “The Patriot” (2000). It is a common problem that special effects-driven films cannot tell a story well. Character development is an afterthought to explosions and cinematic gore. Moreover, films are necessarily limited in their potential pallet. They cannot deal with many characters, many days, or much complexity. Thus to tell the story of the Battle of Midway, which is large in scope and complex in execution, is on the face of it an enormous challenge.

Emmerich met this challenge in epic fashion. Not only does he incorporate the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and the Doolittle Tokyo Raid, he is able to clearly outline the entire battle plan and its execution. This film is an enormous achievement, ranking in my estimation with one of the greatest war films made. And from what I know and can tell it is largely accurate.

I saw it on its opening performance on Thursday night. The theater was filled primarily with older men, whose fathers had participated in the war in the Pacific. Their only complaint was the politically correct post-film caption that sought to honor the sailors who died on both sides of the battle. “They fxxxing started the war,” one patron complained to me. The Japanese commanders were generally humanized as cultured, educated, and fearless. But the filmmaker still found ways to acknowledge Imperial Japanese wartime brutality. The film was partially funded by the Chinese, who were invaded by Japan at this time, and whose memories are long. The Japanese are shown to randomly kill innocent people, and the fact that 250,000 Chinese were killed as a reprisal for their collaboration in the escape of the 77 Doolittle crewmen is acknowledged.

There are lessons one can learn from such epic historical events. In this case, the battle was not won because of superior technology or even military prowess. The Americans were significantly out gunned in the battle. The Japanese had better planes, ships, and pilots. Moreover the initial attacks by the U.S. forces were total failures, with many more American planes being shot down than Japanese. American torpedoes were often duds. While it is true that the American forces had the intelligence advantage, which they were desperate to demonstrate after the intelligence failure of Pearl Harbor, but even this advantage did not fundamentally shift the tide of the battle. Moreover, there was not any one individual whose singular bravery made all the difference in the battle in spite of the film’s need to highlight the achievements of Joseph Rochefort, Wade McClusky, Dick Best, and Edwin Layton.

One comes away realizing that battles are won or lost on incremental small steps done in the moment for which one has no awareness at the time of their contribution to the overall victory. A small difference of 15 minutes could have changed the outcome in the infamous Nagumo dilemma. So it is in these large-scale epic historic events, as it is in life, it is often the cumulative effect of small steps that make all the difference.

If Confederate cavalry commander Jeb Stuart had not gone rogue at Gettysburg, if Lee’s orders to Lt. General Richard Ewell had not included the ambiguous words, “Do this, if possible,” if Ewell had taken the high ground of Cemetery Hill on the eve of the first day of battle at Gettysburg, the outcome might well have been different. If the Royal Navy had not captured German U-boat U-110 recovering the Enigma machine with its cipher keys and code book just before it sank, World War II might have turned out differently.

Certainly, life is full of “ifs,” but history teaches us that it is often the smallest of action that in the larger scheme of things makes all the difference. And for all of the explosions and special effects that flash on the screen, there is a providential God that orders our feeble steps. There is more at work in history than our historians often acknowledge.

This is not to suggest all our small steps assure victory, only that they matter in the larger scheme of things more than we realize. Robert E. Lee knew this better than most. To his longtime aide during the war he wrote years later looking back at the defeat of the Confederacy, he wrote on September 28, 1870, “My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them nor indisposed me to serve them. Nor in spite of failures, which I lament, of errors, which I now see and acknowledge, or of the present aspect of affairs do I despair of the future. The truth is this, the march of providence is so slow and our desires so impatient, the work of progress so immense, and our means of aiding it so feeble, the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.” Our smallest actions always matter against the larger canvas of history. We may not be called on to fly a Dauntless dive bomber toward a Japanese aircraft carrier, but let's remember this Veteran's Day that our own steps of heroism can come in the small steps that our own history calls us to face.

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