Friday, December 11, 2009

Vision and Values

With the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Americans suddenly found themselves in the middle of a war. No one knew how long it would last, what sacrifices would be demanded, or even if we would win. Today we are involved in another war against the powers of evil. This conflict also came upon us suddenly and without warning. Again we have no way of knowing with certainty how long the struggle will last, the full measure of sacrifice it will call for, or whether we will, in the end, prevail.

One of the books I’m using to research the third volume in my American Patriot series is Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer. As I read about the hardships the soldiers of the Revolution and their families endured, I am deeply impressed by the vision and values that guided the patriots. Fischer gives a moving account of the critical battles of Trenton and Princeton during the dark winter of 1776-77, when the lamp of Revolution flickered for what appeared to be one last time and came very near to being extinguished. All that kept the flame of liberty alive was the unconquerable resolution of those committed to the battle.

Honor and humanity were their touchstones and their guides. At first, Washington’s relations with his New England troops were difficult, even contentious. The independent attitudes of these small farmers, shopkeepers, fishermen, and laborers were very different from tho, se of the wealthy Southern planters among whom he lived, and made it hard to maintain discipline. Over time, however, he learned that while these men could not be driven, they could be led.

Fischer notes that through the trial by fire that they shared, Washington came to treat these Yankees, whom he initially viewed with disdain, as men of honor. The American army of that day became the only military force in the world that treated even privates as gentlemen. This was a new concept for that day: that moral condition, rather than social rank, is what defines a gentleman; and that honor is a principle of human dignity instead of an entitlement of rank, status, or gender.

These new ethical values took practical form in the general orders Washington issued forbidding his troops from plundering anyone, even the Tories, who opposed the rebellion. Washington frequently reminded his troops that they were fighting for liberty and that even the enemy deserved to be treated humanely. He also established strict standards for the treatment of prisoners of war and noncombatants. In contrast to the cruelty British and Hessian troops often directed against women and children, Washington ordered that they were to be treated with “humanity and tenderness.”

In spite of the flaws and failures all too common to human beings then and now, these values persist in American culture today. It is amazing to think that this vision of human worth and dignity was established at the very beginning of our nation’s existence and still forms the foundation on which it stands. Believing that they would win the victory only if they deserved it, Washington and his officers cared deeply about how their actions were viewed by the world and by God. How familiar these ideals sound in relation to the war Americans are fighting today to defeat terrorism! Now, as then, our goal is to ensure that all people everywhere can enjoy the liberty and human dignity that are their birthright as children of God.

Those of us who care deeply about where we Americans came from and where we are going will never allow the heroic sacrifices of our forebears to be forgotten nor the vision and values for which they spilled their blood to be abandoned. Still today we believe that we will win the fight only if we deserve victory. Let us each strive to live in such a way that we do.

* Painting: “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emmanuel Leutze, 1851.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Courage to Stand

During 1775-76, the American colonies suffered a string of defeats, including the unsuccessful invasion of Canada, the battles of Brooklyn, Manhattan and White Plains, and Washington's retreat into New Jersey. The grand army assembled by Washington to meet the British in Brooklyn almost disappeared. It declined from over 20,000 in September 1776 to less than 4,000 by December, when the dramatic battles of Trenton and Princeton were fought. . . . These losses were by and large the result of discouragement—the impact of successive defeats with concurrent disillusionment and a growing rate of desertion—and the departure of soldiers, and indeed whole units, who returned home at the end of their short-term enlistments. . . .

As shown by the Battle of Brooklyn, the Revolution, if successful, would be won as a war of the thirteen colonies united as a nation, with an army representing the whole, not parts of it, or factions, each with its own contribution to make but also with its own local agenda....With the Battle of Brooklyn, the Congress was forced to reassess its thoughts about a national, standing army.

—James Dingeman in the Introduction to The Battle of Brooklyn, 1776, by John J. Gallagher

On my desk beside my computer stands a small, framed quotation that says, “Joan, trust me. I have everything under control. Jesus.” I look at it often as I work on my projects.

It occurs to me that we so often either forget, or doubt, that God really does have everything under control. Every day’s news includes accounts of more casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the build up of nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea, the continuing genocide in the Sudan and other places, famine, natural disasters, appalling crimes, and on and on that tempt us to wonder whether God even cares or if he ultimately possesses the power to put an end to these evils.

Surely Washington must have wrestled with the same issues as he watched his army slip away in the days and months following the debacle at Brooklyn Heights. Where is God when we need him the most? Why doesn’t he intervene to set things right when everything has gone so wrong? Why does the good always seem to be under such implacable attack—and losing? Is God in control, after all? Or is God only the name we give to some indifferent cosmic force out there in the universe?

Over the years I've grappled with all these questions—and more. And the conclusion I've come to may seem like a cop-out to some people, but in the end it's the only conclusion that makes any sense.

I once read the statement that God is his own arbiter. Because we are not God, because our minds can never comprehend the vastness of the universe God created, much less the mind of the One who created it, we are not capable of seeing the fullness of God's purpose and will at work in our world. God reveals to us what little we can understand and then requires us to trust him for the rest. Sure, we can shake our fists at God or refuse to believe in him, but what does that accomplish when he is the one who sets the parameters of our existence? The unalterable truth is that God will judge us, we will not judge God. God is what he is whether we like it or agree with it. Our opinions and preferences, where they are not in line with Truth, are simply irrelevant. In this life it is not our responsibility to decide what Truth is, but to discover Truth and live by its light.

At Christmastime in 1776, Washington stared the stark reality of his army's situation in the face and made the only decision he could make short of giving up the conflict and facing execution for treason. He went on the attack with an achingly small force of ragged, half-naked, ill equipped, and exhausted men. They attacked through a raging nor'easter, driving though a blizzard of howling wind, ice, and snow that no human should be able to survive to fight a well-equipped and formidably trained enemy that decisively outnumbered them. Several men froze to death waiting for the boats that would ferry them across the Delaware. But Washington refused to turn back, and his steadfast determination inspired the men he led to feats none of them thought possible. And they won.

Indeed, the Revolution would be won as a war of the thirteen colonies united as a nation, not by factions pursuing their own individual agendas. The patriots of that day trusted their fate to God and refused to give up the liberties the Almighty had given them. They unflinchingly made the sacrifices that were necessary to see the war through and secure the blessings of liberty for the generations that followed. Are we prepared to make those same sacrifices today? Will we set aside the narrow regionalism and political agendas that sap our strength, blind our vision, and bog us down? Will we choose to earnestly seek God's will instead of our own individual, and temporary, advantage?

Only time will reveal the answer to those questions. I pray that our nation will take courage, earnestly implore God’s help, follow the path of righteousness wherever God may lead us, and leave the results to the One who alone rules the future.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

American Patriot

When I talk about patriotism, I mean the term in the best sense: the love for and loyalty to one’s country that doesn’t denigrate other great nations and their citizens. This is the country of my birth, and I feel so blessed that God placed me here, where I have the liberty, peace, and opportunities that are denied so many people around the world.

On December 7, 1941 the United States was attacked suddenly, secretly, and without provocation at Pearl Harbor. Outrage at that unprovoked attack resulted in the greatest war effort ever known to quell the aggressions of Germany and Japan. Almost sixty years later, on September 11, 2001, we were once again attacked in the same way. And again the citizens of our great nation initially pulled together to begin a war on terrorism. But now, after the passage of only eight years, the horror of that day have faded, and most of us have settled back into to our everyday lives without much thought of the immense losses suffered by so many and the continuing sacrifices our servicemen and women make daily to preserve our freedom and security.

In doing research for the historical fiction series I am writing about the American Revolution, I’m humbled and moved by the heroism of that first Greatest Generation that won our liberty for us at such great personal cost. Today so few citizens of this country know much about what happened so many years ago, yet if those events had never happened, this nation would not exist. Time and again I’m confronted by the realization that few even care, and it breaks my heart.

Will the same be true of our soldiers and their families who endured hardship in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf Wars, and Afghanistan and Iraq? Do we forget so quickly, so easily, the incredible sacrifices these heros have made and are making on our behalf?

Each year on the anniversaries of these attacks, I hope we will set aside time to remember and reflect on the men and women who, down through more than 200 years of our history, gave their all so that you and I could live in freedom. May God continue to bless America as we resolve to obey His laws and cherish the blessings of liberty we enjoy.

* Photo of USS Virginia.