Saturday, February 25, 2006

Thoughts Arising From Military Failure

At the beginning of this week a book I had ordered pre-US publication finally arrived. My intention was to skim a few paragraphs then put it in line with the others waiting to be read - but somehow it jumped the queue. While I am still closer the beginning than the end of this substantial volume, I lacked the self-control necessary to scan a few pages and then stop.

Together We Stand is James Holland's history of the Allied battle for North Africa in World War Two. I had seen it in a bookstore in Glasgow, Scotland, last summer, and had wanted it because this was my father's war. He was shipped out to Egypt in May 1940, fought the whole North Africa campaign, crossed to Sicily then Italy, and was not sent home until October 1944. Like so many old soldiers, he talked little about the actual business of fighting, so I saw this as a good opportunity to put the anecdotal stories of his military life in context.

I had not expected the book would help me grapple with the challenge of ministry in this sixty-years-later-world, but it has. I had always wondered why the Allies, primarily the British, were militarily so disasterous for the first three years of that conflict. It was obvious that the absence of the Americans and the shortage of military hardware played a part in this failure, but their fighting record in the latter years of the war was sterling which meant they were not totally inept, so what was it?

My questions were more than answered in Holland's brilliant third chapter where he demonstrates that the Germans, both secretly in the Twenties and then openly in the Thirties, had been preparing to vindictate themselves, while at the same time Britain had been demobilizing and making significant defense cuts. The USA did exactly the same thing. Germany was ready and prepared, Britain had had its head buried firmly in the sand until the very last minute.

Add to this a British military culture that "instead of embracing... new technology and applying serious thought to how it could be developed and applied... hid behind the traditions and mentality of the pre-1914 colonial army" (Page 40). When a country has a long history and great traditions the truth is that these are often vaunted at the expense of being ever vigilant.

Not only this, but there was a culture in the army that did not encourage persistent engagement with being a forward-looking fighting machine, but instead ridiculed those who studied the lessons of war, considering them either fools or eccentrics. Young officers who attempted to address the challenge were given short shrift, then packed off to serve on the distant rim of the Empire.

Furthermore, there were social hurdles in certain regiments that had them stuck. Most of the officer corps of the great historic regiments were "largely closed societies where decorum and tradition counted for everything" (Page 41). Being a gentleman took precedence over the highest standards of soldiering in a fast-changing and dangerous world. One cavalry regiment was so incensed about mechanization that as late as 1938 it was lobbying Parliament about horses being taken away!

Is it any wonder that when war did finally erupt they found themselves out-gunned and out-manouvered? They were facing off against a large, well-equipped, contemporary army that had learned the lessons of their failure and wanted to turn the tables on the victors of 1918. The next years were one nightmare after another: Dunkirk, the fall of France, and then setback after setback. In late 1941 came the greatest ever British military defeat with the loss of Singapore, and by mid-1942 Rommel's Afrika Corps looked set to take the Suez Canal.

Not only was Allied equipment inadequate and outmoded, but their strategies no longer worked. Those cavalry horses were symbolic, because if pressed you would have found these soldiers would have much preferred charging across the field on their steeds with swords flashing, than discovering how to take on a well-equipped infantry backed up by Panzer tanks and supported from the air by M-109s and Stucka dive bombers. As late as early 1942 the organization of the British Eight Army under Gen. Auckinleck was more suited to the 19th than the 20th Century.

I could go on because this makes such a wonderful illustration, but I would bore you. It was while preparing my hillside for its spring crop of flowers this afternoon that my mind was chewing on these facts. The condition of the British military in 1939-1942 has so many parallels to today's church, especially the mainline churches. We do the ecclesiastical equivalent of red jackets and flashing swords rather well, all the time kidding ourselves that this makes an impact on the contemporary field of engagement.

Like the British generals and senior officer corps in 1939 we are just not prepared for the intensity of the battle in which we find ourselves, and are using yesterday's strategies in the hope that they will do tomorrow's job. Many in our midst adhere slavishly to yesterday's ideological undergirding and (both conservative and liberal) modernistic theology, rather than learning the lessons of forty years of numerical decline and the virtual loss of many parts of Europe to the Christian faith.

Just as it took several years to replace the likes of General Auckinleck with Bernard Montgomery, a man who understand the challenges the Allies were up against, as commander of the Eighth Army so we are still placing into leadership men and women whose desire is the fiction that we can reproduce yesterday's church in tomorrow's world. This has been much on my mind in the last few days as we have hosted the dog-and-pony show prior to the election of a new bishop in Tennessee. I think that only one nominee had any idea of what we are up against.

Like the British military of 1939 most of these candidates (and the clergy and laity that one of them will soon be leading), are more wrapped up in protecting the institution than making the institution subservient to the mission to which God has called us. I don't say this because I despise the institution, but because I am far more committed to the mission which the institution is supposed to undertake.

Several things happened that saved the British from their own military shortsightedness. The first was that they had the good fortune of getting an overall leader whose stubborn pugnacity gave the people spine. Leadership is crucial. Any battle worth fighting is not going to be won by a batallion of jellyfish. The second was that at certain times and places, crucial holding actions helped shore up this native determination until reinforcements came from the western shores of the Atlantic. A third was that even if they were sometimes slow in learning the lessons of war, they did eventually learn them -- and learn them well.

There are parallel lessons that we can learn. We need leaders with pugnacity and grace who will give us spine to stand firm, and then once in a while we need something that will give us some encouragement to keep hanging in there.

Finally, we need to learn the lessons we are being taught by the circumstances on the ground. One reason why I think that Anglicans might ultimately be better prepared to deal with the rough and tumble of mission in the post-postmodern age is that the faithful among us already have backs against the wall and are being forced to understand what their mission is, by trial and error to get their strategies correct for this time in history, and to recognize that it is not the institution that matters most -- but the mission to which God has called us.

What we need now is some providential blessing, that others might call a bit of luck, and a whole truckload of spine.

1 comment:

Joel H said...


I didn't know that you had s blog henc I've never read it. I'm impressed. As a retired military type I can really relate to your line of thought. I would like to hear who it is that seems to be the one candidate that 'gets it' and how you reached that conclusion. I pray that we can win the war without having to surrender the Church.