The Truth? We Can’t Handle It

The courtroom is silent as the old military man gathers himself. Every eye is on him. He is either a courageous hero or a misguided fool.

The courtroom is silent as the young lawyer stands waiting. Every eye is on him. He is either a courageous hero or a misguided fool.

Finally, the old military man speaks.

"Have I made myself clear?"

“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.

“You don’t want the truth because, deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said “thank you” and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand at post.

“Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to.”

If you’ve seen the film A Few Good Men, or read the exceptional play by Aaron Sorkin upon which the film is based, you know that in the end Col. Nathan Jessup is not only a misguided fool but a pernicious bully, and we cheer when he is removed from the courtroom, guilty of an innocent man’s blood. In the end, he is the villain – the straw man that represents our government and its blind ambition, greed and callousness.

But the question, as I sit here typing before Memorial Day, is are we right to cheer for Jessup’s downfall?

Sure, in the movie, he’s an arrogant jerk who thinks he owns the world. Even in the speech I’ve quoted above, he references his belief that he provides “the blanket of freedom” under which we all live. We’re set up from the get-go to dislike this man – in fact, it reminds me of something David Foster Wallace wrote in his essay on David Lynch. Wallace said, and I’m paraphrasing, that most movies come with a built-in morality that’s designed to mirror the audiences perceptions. The more accurately a movie diagnoses the audiences moral convictions and panders to them, the more popular the movie will turn out to be.

Wallace’s point is that the movies we love best are the ones that manipulate us the most. And in A Few Good Men, Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin manipulate us with the best of them, most compellingly so in our disgust for Col. Jessup.

Now, I won’t bother to parse the politics of either Mr. Reiner or Mr. Sorkin, because I don’t believe they are the issue here. What I guess is bothering me this Friday of the Memorial Day weekend, is that we as the American audience can ever be swayed to dislike a solider at all.

Sure, there are those who enter into our voluntary military out of a misguided notion that they’ll be able to make better use of their socio- or psychopathic tendencies, but those soldiers are, I’ve been told more than once, quickly identified and rendered unfit for service. And while I’m aware that any large bureaucracy will have its inherent corruptions, I believe sincerely that the majority of the U.S. Armed Forces membership is comprised of good and noble men and women who sign their lives away a piece at a time to do those things which keep us free.

Those things which neither you nor I as civilians have the wherewithal to do.

In A Few Good Men we are led to revile Col. Jessup because he lives by the idea that his existence is meant to keep the American people free, and that means blood sometimes has to be shed. While the blood shed in the movie is the blood of an innocent Marine, we’re led to revile Jessup for being willing to shed blood at all. We’re led to the pacifistic notion that we can solve our problems without guns.

And while I wish that were true, all I need do is head on over to and read the latest story from Kandahar or Kabul to realize that we do indeed live in a world that requires men with guns to protect us. We, the homebound many, are dependent upon the armed few. We, the clean civilians, are made free by the blood-covered soldiers who serve at our behest, which is the ultimate irony of A Few Good Men:

We hate Nathan Jessup for being willing to kill, but he’s only willing to kill because we the people have commissioned him to do so on our own behalf. Our dislike for Jessup is really a perverse self-loathing projected onto him, an unconscious rejection of the cost of our self-righteous contentedness.

I remember the first time I really thought about the relationship between the American people and the American soldier. I was in fifth grade, and we took a FOCUS trip to Washington D.C., a bunch of geeky intellectual kids cut loose on the nation’s capitol. One of our stops was the National Mall, and I somehow ended up at the Vietnam Memorial. Something about those thousands of tiny names cut deeply into the black granite made me stand still. While other memorials were to individuals, or were oblique statues meant to represent many people, this monument stood out because of the stunning care it took to display each and every name to the seeing eye.

I didn’t know how to articulate this of course, but it resonated with me: here, for all to see, was the human cost of war. Not abstractions or slogans or jargon, but the actual flesh and blood price for freedom. I remember just standing there, moved to tears, looking for a name I might recognize. I didn’t know anyone on the wall, but I felt as if I should.

And when I came across a man, dressed in tattered Army greens, who just stared at a single panel of the wall, at a single name, I knew that whatever price the men and women on that wall paid was far greater than any I was willing to pay. I knew, in my heart, that what they had seen and done and felt and remembered was burden that should be mine to carry, but one which I willingly shifted to their shoulders, not caring if the weight was too much.

It’s sort of like how a lot of people see the Cross of Christ. But I’ll leave that for another time.

I guess I just want us all to remember, as we grill out this weekend, or whenever we feel compelled to make smart remarks when we read of some military exercise gone wrong (or in the case of Osama Bin Laden, gone right), that we are not talking about abstractions. We’re not even talking about the fictional “bad guys” like Nathan Jessup, whom we can pretentiously hate without having to really think about it.

We’re discussing men and women, sons and daughters, who are willing to bear the price of bloodshed so that we may be free. They bear by proxy the blood that is on our hands.

Let’s make sure we take some time this weekend to be grateful.

And if we can’t be grateful, then let’s at least agree to shut up and give honor by not spewing dishonor.

It’s the very least we can do.

Guest Post: A Marine On The Death Of Osama Bin Laden

Lt. Col. Karl "KJ" Johnson, Marine Corps. Semper Fi indeed.

I mentioned yesterday that I offered the blog up to two people for guest posts. One of them took me up on the offer, and I am unbelievably excited that he did. Lieutenant Colonel Karl “KJ” Johnson is a helicopter pilot in the Marine Corp and a veteran of the War on Terror. KJ has been just about everywhere the War has taken our troops, and has seen everything there is to see. If anyone can lend some perspective to the death of the World’s Most Notorious Terrorist, KJ certainly can.

I first met KJ through my work with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. I was working a public forum at Arizona State University and KJ, who lived in California at the time, drove all they way to Scottsdale just to help work at our book table. I ended up sitting next to him at the payment table, and we struck up a conversation that lasted pretty much all night. His stories fascinating, but his insight into life – insight brought about in part by his service to our country, but mostly by his God-given gift of intelligence – made you stop and really think about issues you’d long considered resolved in your mind. He does exactly that with today’s post. Please, read it, think about it, and then pass it on to someone else.

The Death of OBL

As a Marine officer of nearly 19 years of continuous active duty service and, more importantly, a disciple of Jesus Christ I am very interested in the recent turn of events involving Osama bin Laden (OBL).  In fact, I have been keenly interested since that fateful day in Sept. 2011.  Believe it or not, one of my first thoughts that day was “I wonder if anyone is praying for OBL.”  I mean, aren’t we supposed to love our enemies?  As an American citizen I have no more dangerous an enemy than OBL and those who are associated with him.  Aren’t we supposed to forego the weapons of the world, as counterintuitive as that may seem?  At that time I was getting ready to deploy, so the likelihood of going into combat was very real (remember, this was before we went into either Afghanistan or Iraq) and most of my peers were using the events of 9/11 to motivate them for (or cope with) our six-month deployment.  In fact, many of my peers were eager to engage the enemy in order to exact some revenge/justice…all in the name of patriotism.  So why was I thinking about praying for OBL?

Now, I’m not judging my fellow Marines.  A large part of me agrees with them and I certainly subscribe to the Just War Theory; I would never have accepted a commission as an officer in the Corps otherwise.  And this would certainly be a Just War.  But somehow God would not let me feel the hatred for OBL that many of my peers felt.  Oh, I was very affected by the events of 9/11.  In fact, I was very surprised by just how emotional I got seeing my beloved homeland attacked and violated.  I had friends in the Pentagon that day.  And, since I’m a pilot, I played the events of the courageous passengers in my mind over and over and wondered many times what I would have done had I been on one of those flights, or if I had been one of the pilots.  I was enraged to see what had happened.  But I did not harbor a hatred for OBL or any single person.  Perhaps it’s because my worldview accounted for the existence of evil and I recognized the dangers posed by the radical Islamic agenda.  I don’t know for sure, but I do know that God called me to pray that day.  And I prayed that God would somehow win over OBL, that somehow God would reach into his black heart and redeem it just like he had redeemed mine.

OBL deserves death and hell.  But so do the rest of us.  If God is the standard, we are all in trouble.  We all need grace.  We tend to grade one another, to compare ourselves to others.  This works for us and against us.  “Oh, I may not be perfect but at least I’m not as bad as so-and-so.”  Or how about, “man, look at so-and-so, I’ll never be as good a Christian as he/she is.”  No, there’s only one comparison to be made, the comparison to Christ.  And we all fail that test.  OBL was decieved.  VERY deceived.  But are we any better off?  Do we play games with ourselves and convince ourselves that we’re good enough or better than others?  Remember the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14?  He prayed “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”  Or even this terrorist.  Really?  We are just like the Israelites.  We never learn, and we keep repeating the same sins.

Think maybe OBL was beyond God’s reach?  What about Paul?  Oh, but he was an apostle, a one-of-a-kind instance.  Really?  Check out the story of Thomas Tarrants, a terrorist himself, former president of the C.S. Lewis Institute (now their Director of Ministry) and good friend (I did not meet him until years after all of this).  You want a good story?  Google the CS Lewis Institute, write them a letter and they will send you a FREE copy of Tom’s testimony.  You will not regret it, and it will change how you think of others.  You will never again believe that anyone is unreachable.

So, how do I feel about the death of OBL.  Well, it certainly provides a certain amount of closure.  I was a little bit emotional because it represents bringing a tyrant to justice and the closing of a chapter of frustration; OBL had eluded us for so long and I did not want him to get away with his crimes (in this world).  And on the strategic level of warfare this represents a victory.  It will send a message to terrorists all over the globe and serve as a beacon of hope to those who live in fear of men like OBL.  Another part of me recognizes that on the tactical and operational levels of warfare this does not change a lot.  The Taliban and al-Qa’ida are still a threat and the brave American men and women in Afghanistan still face the same dangers they did on April 30.  And they are likely to see those threats increase as the Taliban steps up their efforts to avenge OBL’s demise.  But those same men and women will also find encouragement and a lift in morale to see this victory.  Additionally, those of us in uniform are not naïve enough to think that this going to topple the opposition.  This is not like taking out Hitler during WWII.  No, it’s a whole new kind of warfare.  One in which there are no front lines, no rear area, no obvious enemy.  I guess in the end, I’m a bit ambivalent.  I do not rejoice in the death of anyone, even OBL.  Instead, I am haunted by C.S. Lewis’ words: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”  I know which one I want to be.

A Day in the Life of a Wounded Soldier’s Wife

A few weeks ago I wrote about SFC Mark Allen and his wife, Shannon, and their daughter, Journey, for Veteran’s Day. I went to high school with Shannon and go to church with her grandparents, so Mark’s story of recovery has struck close to home. I wrote the piece hoping to honor the family, and got nothing but warm feedback from Shannon and others. It felt like the right thing to do.

Today, I spied a note from Shannon on Facebook titled “A Day in the Life“. I clicked on it and ended up in tears. She also posted the note on Mark’s CaringBridge site, but I’m going to paste the text of it here on my blog, because I think it needs to be read by everyone during this holiday season. If you are caring for a loved one who is critically injured or ill, or going through regular rehabilitation or therapy, a lot of this note will sound familiar. It sure did to me.

But if you’re blessed enough to have no experience with caring for someone who can’t care for themselves, then read this and know once again that the men and women who fight for our country in faraway places aren’t nameless automatons or political pawns or faceless figures manuevered about some unseen country. I want you read this and remember the names Mark and Shannon Allen–because they’re the people who sacrificed so you could have all that you do.

With special thanks to Shannon for her permission to post.

“I wanted to offer everyone a glimpse into my daily life. Please read this in the lighthearted spirit in which it’s intended, not as a genuine complaint or as a ‘poor me’ sentiment.


Up by 7:00, shower, (while Journey pokes her head around the shower curtain ever 38 seconds), get ready (while J cries because the hairdryer scares her), get J ready, fix her lunch, get us downstairs for breakfast by 8:10, leave hotel by 8:45 to drop J off at 9:00. Head to hospital, straight to the 5th floor for Speech Therapy ’till 10:00, then directly to the 2nd floor for Physical Therapy ’till 11:00. (Vision Therapy and Occupation Therapy are at 7:30 and 8:00, so I can’t be there for those). Back up to the 5th floor to Mark’s room to look him over (check ears, eyes, wash his face, wet and fix his hair, check his skin for breakdown, check his feeding tube for cleanliness and function) and brush his teeth (takes way more time than you’d imagine). 12:00 breathing treatment and meds.

12:30 – Here’s where we actually have two whole hours to do what we want. But wait!! (infomercial style)! There are non-stop doctors and nurses and liasons and advocates and representatives and social workers and volunteers and that other guy (a year and a half and I still don’t know what he does) stopping in (closed door or not) to check on us. And there goes our alone time. Don’t get me wrong. These people are GREAT and I don’t know what we’d do without them, it just gets a little overwhelming at times.

Where was I? Oh yeah, leave hospital by 2:45 to pick up Journey. Load her up and drive back to the hospital. Unload her and focus her attention enough to actually walk up to the hospital (takes twice as long when she’s with me : ) ), and back up to Mark’s room around 3:30. Chase her around (try to keep her in the room, fetch juice and snacks, etc) and try to focus attention on both her and Mark, which isn’t always easy.

Oops. Now it’s 5:00 and Journey and I have to trek back out to the van, load up and head to the grocery store. Yep. Grocery store nearly every day because our hotel room has one of those tiny ‘dorm’ refrigerators which doesn’t store much besides the essentials. Then back to the hotel to make dinner with a microwave, George Forman Grill and an electric skillet and no counter space. Scarf said dinner. Clean up, dunk her in the bath tub, then put her in bed by 7:30. Then, I’m physically and emotionally fried and confined to my room for the next 12 hours. Fun, huh?

Tuesdays and Thursdays are even a little more hectic because I drag J all around the hospital with us and we’re back and forth for naps.

I’m not complaining. Not even a little. Just trying to give some insight into our daily life and understanding about why I’m not the best at updating CaringBridge or evening phone calls.”

Whatever your holiday traditions this year, take a moment and remember Mark, Shannon, Journey, Cody and the rest of their family. Honor isn’t just given through parades and monuments, but by real people thinking of and appreciating the military families who bless us with their selfless service.

Merry Christmas, Shannon and Mark – and may this new year be one of unimaginable happy endings.

For SFC Mark Allen, Shannon and Journey – And All Vets

Unless you know Mark and Shannon Allen, you probably don’t recognize the man on the left. For a while, Mark probably didn’t recognize him either, even though that’s his picture. See, while serving the United States of America as a soldier in Afghanistan, Mark was shot in the head and critically wounded on July 8, 2009. He’s been rehabbing and rebuilding here in the States ever since.

If you want to know more about Mark’s story, you can sign up for his CaringBridge website here; it’s where I got the picture, and read about the latest in his long journey of recovery. I don’t know Mark personally, though I did go to high school with his wife, Shannon, and have gotten to know the family better through Shannon’s Facebook and CaringBridge updates. I know that he and Shannon have a precious little daughter named Journey, and I know that they appreciate and need every prayer.

I won’t insult anyone’s intelligence by trying to craft a story out of nothing – I’m probably treading on some extremely thin ice just by posting this much – since I don’t know Mark and can’t say I’m anything close to an acquaintance of the family. I just felt like on Veteran’s Day, a wounded soldier and the family that loves him should know that hundreds of miles away a grown man is sitting at his computer and crying like a baby over their collective sacrifice, grateful to God that Mark Allen was willing to take a bullet for me and my family.

I, and anyone else who might read this, owe Mark, Shannon, and every other American service family at least that much. You are heroes, all.