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If You Don’t Have Time to Read You don’t Have the Time or Tools to Lead

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

During the first week of March I took about a week off of regular writing and commended a new campaign of reading. This was not because I don’t read, I am always reading, but sometimes I don’t read enough, so that week I began to catch up on some reading. Since then I have read, and read, even as I began to write again, not that I ever really stopped. I fully subscribe to the words of American satirist Will Rogers who noted: “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”

Honestly I prefer to learn by reading or observing, and reading has been part of my life since I was a child and I cannot imagine trying to write a single sentence without reading, as Stephen King noted: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” I would extend King’s observation to say that if you don’t have time to read you don’t have time or the tools to lead. Sadly the American President and many of his most devoted followers never challenge themselves by reading.

So tonight I wanted to take a few minutes and catch you up on the newest additions to my reading rainbow. I finished reading German historian Paul Carrel’s Unternehmen Barbarossa im Bild (Operation Barbarossa in Pictures) in which the text is in German and Max Boot’s The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale an the American Tragedy in Vietnam. 

I took on Carrel’s book because I had read many of his histories of the German Army in the Second World War in English and I wanted to use this large German volume to improve my German vocabulary. It’s an excellent volume first published in 1976 but unless you have a moderate familiarity of German it I don’t recommend it despite the vast number of photos that I have not seen elsewhere and his honest commentary and reflections on the moral, social, and political disaster that was Operation Barbarossa.

I also finished Max Boot’s outstanding volume of the life of General Edward Lansdale. This is really a good account of U.S. involvement in the Philippines and Vietnam from 1945 until 1975. Lansdale was deeply involved in one of the few successful counter-insurgencies of the 20th Century, that against the Communist supported Huks in the Philippines  by Lansdale who worked closely with political reformers and sought to understand and win over insurgents without engaging in massive military sweeps. However successful he was he was distrusted by much of the CIA and military establishment and his efforts in Vietnam were undercut by them. Boot treats Lansdale’s story well without attempting to hide his many flaws. Lansdale has been referred to as an American T. E. Lawrence and Boot gives an excellent account of his life in the context of the CIA, American actions in Indochina, and American politics in the from the mid 1950s until the early 1970s. The book is well worth the read.

On the Vietnam front I read the late Michael Herr’s Dispatches, his classic account of his time serving as a war correspondent in Vietnam at Hue, Khe San, and other battles over the course of 18 months. Having been to war I highly recommend it.

On the more contemporary American political situation I read conservative and former Bush Administration advisor, David Frum’s book on the Trump Era, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. It is well worth the read for anyone but I highly recommend that conservatives read it. I don’t always agree with some of Frum’s political positions, but his take on the corrosive effects of Donald Trump on the United States and how Republicans have aided and abetted him.

Continuing down that road I read Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s masterpiece of investigative journalism Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump. Trump loyalists will hate this book because their work continues to be verified by every new discovery about the Russians and their role in the 2016 elections. It gives the reader a superb understanding of the key players  in this drama and help the reader to put in context the daily revelations of the investigation being conducted by Special Prosecutor Robert Muller and the actions of the President’s words, actions, and policies toward Russia and Putin as well as when he melts down on Twitter. In time it might be ranked with All the President’s Men. 

As a matter of contextualizing the present I read the late historian Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land which was written following the collapse of 2008. Judt discusses how we have not learned the lessons of the Twentieth Century and the problems related to the failures of both the right and left to learn those lessons. It is well worth the read but it is not a book designed or written to comfort partisans on any side of the political spectrum.

Going back to look at history I took the time to read Walter Lord’s sequel to his classic book on the sinking of the Titanic, A Night to Remember by reading his book The Night Lives On: The Untold Stories and Secrets of the “Unsinkable” Ship – Titanic. The second volume was published some three decades after Lord’s first volume which I think is the best account of the event ever written.  To follow it up I ordered and watched the film A Night To Remember which was also well worth watching. While not as technically accurate nor filled with “A list” stars the film captures the the tragedy of the ship in a way I don’t think that James Cameron’s masterpiece Titanic really gets.

I re-read Lord’s book on the integration of Ol’e Miss The Past that Would Not Die which though it recounts events of 1962 seems amazingly relevant in the present day.  The account of the admission of Air Force veteran James Howard Meredith in the face of the political opposition of Mississippi’s Governor and Legislature, armed White Supremacists against Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and civil rights activists. The event was a crisis that brought to the present the memories and ideology of secession and revolt against the Federal Government and Constitution in the name of preserving a history of white supremacism. Likewise I also re-read British historian and military theorist B. H. Liddell Hart’s little book Why Don’t We Learn from History? 

I took up Jason Stanley’s excellent How Propaganda Works. This is an excellent book for academics but I do not recommend it for the casual reader because it presupposes a knowledge of political philosophy and history that most people don’t have. It was a long and tiring read for me and I liked it. It provides a lot of insights into the mechanics of propaganda. For me it gave me a different level of understanding of the propaganda being used by the Russians agains the United States and the machinations of the American President to discredit opponents through both official government pronouncements and the official unofficial White House propaganda network, Fox News.

I am currently reading a number of books. I am about a quarter of the way through John Dower’s The Bloody American Century, about a third of the way through Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, and have just started Tony Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century and Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant.

So anyway. Have a great night and see you tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Foul Weather, and Learning about War

Willoughby Run at Herbst Woods at Gettysburg

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday I was with my students conducting the Staff Ride at Gettysburg. About a week ago the mid-Atlantic region was experiencing record high temperatures and abnormally warm weather. In fact has the temperatures just been normal for this time of year we would have counted ourselves lucky to have such good weather, however, the trended changed and instead of warm weather we had temperatures in the low fifties, wind and rain. The weather was raw, but that is part of life, and if you want to really learn and experience military history you need to do more than sit back in a recliner sipping a nice beverage, and reading a book in comfort.

Guy Sager, who wrote the classic soldier’s account of the Second World War on the Easter front wrote in his book, The Forgotten Soldier: 

“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual…One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”

Our weather was by my standards not bad, but for some of my students, including veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan it was miserable. For me, adverse conditions that we cannot change are one of the best ways to learn about war. The fact is that war is inconvenient, it is uncomfortable, and it is more often than not quite inhuman.  War is nothing to celebrate, battles, even victories are to be commemorated not celebrated, and not celebrated as our President said this week this week in reference to the Battle of the Coral Sea. Sadly, the current American President is neither a historian, nor a soldier; he is a draft dodger who loves the instruments of military power without appreciating the sacrifice of those who serve in combat.

Yesterday was a relatively miserable day as far as weather goes, but we had it easy. We can ride around the battlefield in vans and cars, we take a long lunch break, there are restrooms, and we don’t have to lay our bodies down in the dirt, grass, or mud to sleep.

For me that is one of the most important lessons of going on a Staff Ride or visiting a battlefield. Those are lessons that our civilian leadership and those who are cheerleaders of war need to learn. Sadly, very few Americans understand this. Too few of us have been to war to understand this, and many who have gone to war have stayed on well protected bases with air conditioning, heat, plentiful food, and even internet and television access. That wasn’t my war i n Iraq out with our advisors in  Al Anbar Province, but I digress…

Today we will do the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. We will walk the path trod by Pickett’s Division during Pickett’s Charge, we will visit General Meade’s headquarters, and then go the the Soldier’s Cemetery where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. The weather will be cool, but clear with no rain, although there will be quite a few places that we will have to walk through muddy ad very wet ground, but c’est le guerre.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Never Flatline Intellectually 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a short note to end the week. Today was the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Joint Forces Staff College where I teach. It was a very good, but long day with morning and evening ceremonies and activities. Our chief speaker was retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, one of the most distinguished, honest, and outspoken military men of the past generation. Had the Bush administration listened to him we probably would have never ended up in the Iraq and Afghanistan quagmires. But I digress… 

One of General Zinni’s points was that no matter who you are that you must never stop learning. He lives this. At the age of 72 he holds three masters degrees and is working on a doctorate, lugging his books into doctoral seminars at Creighton University. He believes like I do, and history has shown, that when military budgets are cut the last thing that should be sacrificed is education. He noted that the most dangerous military officer is one whose intellectual curiosity has flatlined. General Zinni certainly does not subscribe to the principles that caused Barbara Tuchman to write “learning from experience is experience is a faculty almost never practiced,” and “nothing so comforts the military mind as the maxim of a great but dead general.” 

General Zinni is one of those remarkable people who can speak the truth without being an ideologue and who is a realist. I have always admired him and have had the pleasure of hearing him speak many times. His books “The Battle for Peace: A Frontline Vision of America’s Power and Purpose,” and “Before the First Shots are Fired: How America can Win or Lose off the Battlefield” should be required reading. 

His words reminded me of those spoken by the late Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver, who said “it’s what you learn after you no it all that counts.” Those are words that I live by. I continually read, study and research, and when I finish my current writing projects I will probably begin to work on a doctorate, not because I need it, but because I never want to stop learning. I never want to flatline intellectually. I know too many people, smart and intelligent people who have flatlined, and far too many more whose intellectual quest stalled before they ever got out of the gate. All of them are dangerous because most devolve into mindless ideologues who readily sacrifice truth for a cause and cannot accept anything that challenges their uncritical worldview. 

So until tomorrow have a great night and better morning. 

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Read, Observe, or Pee on the Electric Fence

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great American humorist Will Rogers once said, “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”

I am slowing down my writing for the next few days to spend more time thinking, reflecting, reading and observing. I have been writing a lot on the Civil War, Civil Rights and Reconstruction, and I have been doing some writing on the outbreak of the First World War, I will continue to do that but I am going to slow down a bit, and just post a few short thoughts each day as I do some reading and reflecting on history and the things that we face today.

I do this because as a historian I known that for all of our great advances, especially in the form of technology that the character of people, the nature of humanity remains fairly constant. Technology may change the way we look the world, how we gather information, how and what we produce, how we fight wars, and even how we relate to each other, but humanity remains the same. Our forms of government and even religious faith may evolve, but the character of humanity is the one constant.

There has been a lot going on in this country and around the world and the one thing that I notice is that few seem to be taking the time to observe and seem to be more interested in immediately framing the events of the day into their particular ideology. This tendency is not limited to any one segment the population and goes across ideological divides.  We live in a time of great political and social upheaval and drastic change and if we are to ride out the storm we must continue to learn and not be satisfied with the banal and insipid sound bites that the Unholy Trinity of pundits, politicians and preachers spew out as wisdom.  The pundits, politicians and preachers who cite history usually do so completely out of context and do so in the form of bad analogies rather than by using any semblance of deductive or inductive reasoning.

Our culture has for the most part abandoned any serious attempt at learning. Schools teach to standardized tests, state school boards ensure that textbooks include nothing too controversial; universities sacrifice faculty and academic programs to prop up bloated administration and non-academic programs. We are consumers of corporate owned news networks that consider their programing entertainment and value market share more than truth. American philosopher Eric Hoffer quite rightly said, “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” But sadly many people, including learned people who should know better and who have great responsibility in political, economic and even education, are content to live in a world that no longer exists.  

Learning comes from reading, observation and experience. Otto Von Bismarck, one of the most remarkable statesmen that ever lived said, “only a fool learns from his own mistakes, a wise man from the mistakes of others,” while Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington and victor of Waterloo wrote, “Wise people learn when they can; fools learn when they must.”

I for one would rather not be one of those that learn by the last named method.  Learning from my mistakes has never been enjoyable and has usually been quite painful, but then as the late Baltimore Orioles Manager Earl Weaver said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

While I know I will make mistakes and hope to learn from them when I do I would much rather learn from the mistakes of others. Let’s hope that our leaders decide to actually pay attention and learn instead of making us pay for their mistakes. Sadly, I think that most people, especially those who claim to be leaders would rather pee on the electric fence themselves.

Anyway, it is time to do some reading and reflecting.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Re-entering Academia

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Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. Socrates

I signed in to my new assignment at the Ethics faculty and Command Chaplain at the Joint Forces Staff College today. The JFSC is part of the National Defense University and as such is not a Navy Command. it is a joint command responsible to the joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Department. There are faculty members from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, NSA, State Department and other agencies and the student body is composed of US military personnel from all branches, other Federal agencies as well as NATO and other allied nations. To put it succinctly my diverse background seems perfectly tailored for the job.

My friend Hal Scott is the outgoing chaplain and has already been a great help during the transition before I reported and today. What was really cool is even the little things were taken care of, right down to the name plate on my office door. Like Denny Crane said in Boston Legalname on the door.” But I digress…

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It is a good thing to have a friend in the position that you are moving in to. I have had many assignments in the military and had a number of good turnovers as we call them, but when someone who knows you and has your best interests at heart is on deck preparing the way it makes things a lot easier.

I met with the Commandant and Chief of Staff as well as some of the academic deans and professors today. It was really nice. Every single person asked me what “I wanted to do” at the college. Today the door to teaching, learning and deeper academic education was thrown open to me. I was told that I will have the chance to do anything I desire.

Now says my desires are pretty simple. I want to care for the faculty and staff members of the college as well as our students. Many of whom are catching one of our programs between arduous operation assignments and combat deployments. Quite a few I understand suffer from PTSD or some other type of combat stress injury and since they are senior officers many choose not to get help because of the stigma attached to getting it. Hopefully I will be someone who can be an encouragement to those that have not sought help,to get it and to be there for those that suffer in silence.

I also want to teach, not just Ethics, which is incredibly important in our world which appears to have gone mad, but also Military history and theory. Since I have my second Masters Degree in Military History it looks like I will get that chance as well. The doors have been opened.

That being said I do want to continue my own education. I for one do not think that a person should ever stop learning, no matter what their academic field or vocation. Since I lean toward academia it follows that I desire to continue to learn, both in my individual study and in formal education. I am looking at a number of doctoral programs which will,help me do that and help me in the academic world when I eventually retire from the military. Admittedly in that all I want to be is an adjunct professor to keep myself in the game but the additional education will help.

My first 10 weeks will be spent as a student in the Joint Advanced Warfighting School, which focuses on Joint, Multi-National and Inter-Agency operations even as I transition to being the Command Chaplain. I will be in a seminar group composed of a cross section of the student body that i already described. once i complete the course I will be teaching a number of Ethics courses and most likely get to teach other subjects as well. The last time I taught college courses was when I taught Western Civilization for Park University back in 2001.

From what Hal tells me the teaching methods encourage class participation and not doing data dumps of Power Point slides. That is good because I am okay with that and don’t mind chasing a rabbit once in a while if it helps students think more critically, ask hard questions and not be satisfied with easy answers to questions where there either are no easy answers or where multiple answers might be correct. That being said I believe that when we do this we give leaders the chance to do the right thing no matter what kind of situation that they find themselves in be it deployed or supporting combat operations or in garrison.

In this I am reminded of a quote from Star Trek the Next Generation. It is from an episode called “The First Duty.” in it the seasoned Captain Jean Luc Picard confronts his young protege Wesley Crusher after a disastrous accident that leaves a Star Fleet Academy cadet dead. Picard tells the young Crusher that “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth… in my book that sums up ethics.

Likewise the pursuit of truth, learning and seeking can never be brushed aside no matter how old we get or who wise that we think that we are. As the late great Hall of Fame Manager of the Baltimore Orioles Earl Weaver put it so well “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

So on Monday morning I will report to class and also give my first briefing on chaplain services, operational and combat stress issues, suicide prevention and other topics to an incoming class. My own class at that. Since we will have a few German officers in the class I will probably do at least part of my introduction in German. My Arabic or French is not good enough at the present to pull that off in either of those languages, but give me time.

Until tomorrow

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Heresy of Thinking and Reason in an Age of Fanaticism

Note: I felt the need to republish this article in light of so many of the controversies that have been in the news lately, especially because some of the visceral reactions that I see from so many people about them. I just hope that people take the time to try to get as much of each story and controversy possible, examine them in the light of history and reason before jumping to unsubstantiated conclusions. The fact is that many of us do precisely this and that is in large part due to how terribly divided we are. However, that being said there is seldom any issue that is totally clear, most actually are quite opaque and clouded in the fog of many shades of gray, and what history teaches us is that we need to be careful before jumping to conclusions.

Peace

Padre Steve+

“Unreason and anti-intellectualism abominate thought. Thinking implies disagreement; and disagreement implies nonconformity; and nonconformity implies heresy; and heresy implies disloyalty. So, obviously, thinking must be stopped. But shouting is not a substitute for thinking and reason is not the subversion but the salvation of freedom.” Adlai Stevenson – A Call to Greatness (1954)

I had a Church History professor in seminary who was known for his attention to detail and his expectation that his students would master the subject.  His method was quite simple. A fellow student asked him during review for a mid-term exam “what do we need to study for the test?”  His answer was simple “everything.” The student restated his question “what do we really need to know?”  My professor paused and made a comment that did not make the student very happy.  He said something that I paraphrase here “it is the details that enable you to see the big picture, without the details you know nothing.”

A good number of my fellow students did not appreciate the fact that he was deadly serious.  It was not simply the ability to remember names and dates and events but to be able to connect them and see what was really important.  Many did not take him seriously and when the test came many failed it.  In fact some continued to fail every exam because they could not reconcile that details were important. The attitude of a good number of my classmates was that history, philosophy or even systematic theology were not important especially if they involved study of people or ideas that they did not agree with.

Unfortunately we now live in an age of anti-intellectualism and anti-historicism. Instead of trying to figure out what is really important and studying the details of the great questions of our day we have become lazy. We simply fall back on the dogmas presented by the Unholy Trinity of Pundits, Politicians and Preachers that cater to our ideology for reassurance.  And they are quite good at co. If you listen to talk radio or are a devoted fan of any particular cable news pundit you can see this on display daily and even more so by our political leaders and those seeking political power. What is presented by the Unholy Trinity is at best half-truth sprinkled with deadly venom of hatred to make the half-truth an absolute truth.  In such a world facts are only important if the “true believer” can use them buttress his ideological bias even if he has to take the completely out of context to in order to do so.  It is so much easier to call an opponent a Communist or Nazi, Fascist or Imperialist, Unbeliever or Heretic and connect them to the evil we want to demonize them as than it is to actually,  engage in a truthful debate and to see things in their historical context. Likewise when we use such labels against those that disagree with us we dehumanize our opponents thereby justifying any evil that we use to silence them.

It seems that we presume that if we repeat what we believe enough, even if it is unsound or erroneous that it will become truth.  As individuals, governments, institutions and businesses we settle for the easy answers that agree with our presuppositions and dismiss opposing views as heresy.  We allow people of little learning but great charm and salesmanship ability sell us myth in place of fact and this happens across the political, social, economic and theological spectrum.

The past few days I have been talking about the study of history as well as ways of learning.  The little things do matter, and the study of history, philosophy, theology, the sciences, economics in fact anything of any importance is based on understanding details, and things like precedent and context.  It is not enough to string together a series of quotations or citations if they are taken out of context, altered or intentionally misused to fit our ideology or doctrine.

This may comfort the true believer in whatever cause and even make them feel superior to those that disagree but such thinking. But it blind them to reality and not conscious of their own envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. The “wall of words” that flow so easily from the mouths and pens of the members of the Unholy Trinity that the faithful are unable to separate them from reality, truth from fiction, opinion from fact.  This “wall of words” serves as their protection against any thought, fact, presumption or doctrine that contradicts them.  John F Kennedy said “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” 

In such times it is important to take the time to learn from history, not just generalities that mix fact and myth but the little details that make up history and for that matter the sciences, philosophy, sociology, political thought and theology.  As a society we have ceased to do this and until we take the time to return to such study, dialogue and put aside our blinders we will be doomed to remain as we are no matter what political party is in power or ideology dominates the airwaves and cyber space.

There is a prayer that neatly sums up what I desire for me and for our society:

From the cowardice that dares not face new truth
From the laziness that is contented with half truth
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Good Lord, deliver me.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under philosophy, Political Commentary, Religion

Learn when you Can rather than when you Must

“Wise people learn when they can; fools learn when they must.”
Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington

I have slowed down writing for a few days to spend more time thinking, reflecting, reading and observing. I mentioned last night how I have been reading about the Napoleonic Wars in particular the naval campaigns which I find are still relevant even in our modern age. Technology, forms of government and even religious faith may evolve may the character of people and nations remains fairly constant.

There has been a lot going on in this country and around the world and the one thing that I notice is that few seem to be taking the time to observe and seem to be more interested in immediately framing the events of the day into their particular ideology. This tendency is not limited to any one segment the population and goes across ideological divides.  We live in a time of great political and social upheaval and drastic change and if we are to ride out the storm we must continue to learn and not be satisfied with the banal and insipid sound bites that the Unholy Trinity of pundits, politicians and preachers spew out as wisdom.  American philosopher Eric Hoffer quite rightly said that “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”  

Learning comes from reading, observation and experience. Otto Von Bismarck, one of the most remarkable statesmen that ever lived said that “only a fool learns from his own mistakes, a wise man from the mistakes of others.”  

The great American humorist Will Rogers put the same thought into a bit more bluntly saying “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”

I for one would rather not be one of those that learn by the last named method.  Learning from my mistakes has never been enjoyable and has usually been quite painful.  While I know I will make mistakes and hope to learn from them when I do I would much rather learn from the mistakes of others. Let’s hope that our leaders decide to actually pay attention and learn instead of making us pay for their mistakes.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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