The Hordes of Mordor, the Baby in the Manger

I just got back from the third and final Lord of the Rings installment. I brought my two oldest kids. It was good. I grew up with the books, and I read the whole series aloud to the kids starting when the first movie came out two years ago, and it took almost until the second one came out last Christmas to finish it. So, the text has primacy for me. Still, the movie is very good and far truer to the spirit of the book than anyone could have dreamed possible.

Tolkien wrote a fantasy, but his message that evil must be fought was based on sound reality. First, his Catholicism taught him that we live in a world scarred by original sin, and that Satan is real and active. Evil is not a metaphor which can be dispensed with by some rhetorical gimmick. Nor is evil a psychiatric or social condition which can be resolved by the march of progress. Evil is a permanent element in human affairs. Tolkienís book is saturated with Catholic symbolism and philosophy. Tolkienís academic discipline was in the ancient languages, whose extant works consist of songs and ballads about deeds of violence and deeds of bravery. He knew well the best and worst that men are capable of. And Tolkien served in the British Army in World War I, that bitter, bloody, thankless struggle, where he lost friends who were dearer to him than brothers. He knew that every good thing in this world, and in the next, was bought with blood and sacrifice. This is a hard but hopeful message, at least from his Catholic perspective, one which I share with him.

And the news which has gotten my attention lately, and caused me the most worry, is the increasing likelihood of a renewed, massive Al Qaeda attack on the United States in the upcoming days or even hours. I am thinking more and more and more that the struggle with radical Islam is not going to be like the Cold War, lasting decades but mostly occurring abroad. I think it is going to last generations, and much of it is going to occur here. Al Qaedaís people have announced that the massacre of five million Americans is their target, including specifically one million children. That is what we are up against. If they obtain nuclear weapons, they may well get close to those figures. But one way or the other, they are going to kill a lot more of us before they are eliminated as a threat. Some of the people reading this blog, and possibly some of those posting on it, are going to die violently at their hands, and not in decades but in days or months or a few years.

They can kill some of us, but they cannot destroy us. I was at my law firmís Christmas party the other night, and I felt inspired by several drinks, as I looked around the room at the lawyers and clients chatting and networking and weaving their political webs, one of my colleagues said something about the terrorists. I said, look at this room, look at these people, each one is a node of decision, a node of action. These are smart and enterprising people. These people would reconfigure themselves and spontaneously reorganize themselves and recover from anything short of literal universal death. A society like ours is not an atomized mass, but a community of free, responsible, active individuals. This is our greatest strength. It is something our enemies cannot understand. It is the reality which is eventually going to sweep them from the face of the earth.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Like the late Professor Tolkien, my hope does not lie entirely in this world, but in the Incarnate God who loves us, who came to be one of us and to share our suffering — and in the intercession of His Blessed Mother. The strength which we will need to survive and prevail in the harsh struggle which is just beginning in these years will not be derived from our merely human powers, but our prayerful reliance on God and trust in His providence.

I see this post has morphed into a Christmas message. That is what I get for typing with no set plan at midnight. My fellow ChicagoBoyz do not share my particular views and faith, and I fear I embarrass them a little when I put up something like this from time to time. But, hey, I hide nothing from our readers, so there it is. And I happily pray for them and for our readers.

As Churchill said, these are not evil times, they are great and terrible times.

Merry Christmas to all of you.

17 thoughts on “The Hordes of Mordor, the Baby in the Manger”

  1. Great post, thanks.

    Lileks has some good related thoughts:

    Who knows. Either we look back at the days of Orange with the same remote interest we have today when we see ration stickers in a Bugs Bunny commercial Ė or the idea of gradiations of concern will strike us a luxury, a contrivance, a flimsy thing that marked the interregnum between the day the war began and the day it flared hot coast to coast. Iím betting on the former. The worst rarely happens. Something just as bad often comes along, but itís not what we foresaw or worried about. Then we learn that a short period of coping can be preferable to a long period of fearing.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful post. STRATFOR seems to think that the A-Q pukes are down to their last nickel, thus making them even more determined to act in a high profile fashion to reestablish credibility, unless of course, they have indeed exhausted their capability to project power.

    Unfortunately, even if that’s the case, another will fill the breach. This conflict is nowhere near its ultimate end.

  3. I read Tolkein in 1972 while I was sitting around waiting for open heart surgery cases to get going. I was a resident in surgery at the time. I have since read them to my children growing up but it didn’t do any good because two of them became lawyers. Just kidding. I think Tolkein had in mind the British of the 1930s who just wanted to be left alone as the evil across the channel grew larger and larger. Finally, like Frodo and Sam, they had to set out because there was no one left. In spite of all, they triumphed, in part at least because the eagles came to help them. It’s been years since I read the books and I haven’t seen the third movie yet so this is from memory. Anyway, the symbolism seems to me to be about that era.

    Now we are the bulwark for all the quarrelsome and obstructionist folks who don’t see the danger. I am not a big Bush fan in many things but I think he has it about right on this. Wolfowitz, too. We have to do this because there is just no other good option. I wish we still had the draft because the generation since 1972 has no sense of military life and shared sacrifice. I tried to interest my kids in the military but it’s tough when there are so many other options, many a waste of time.

  4. Whilst the discussion is about Al Qeada’s capabilities, perhaps we need to remember what we are capable of.Al Qeada should look to WWI and WWII and tremble.This is the time of year to contemplate such things and send the message to terrorists and the nations which support them, to draw back, because the consequences for them are unimaginable.

  5. Well, theyíve been threatening to destroy the United States for a very long time. This is the fanatical middle eastern equivalent of politicians who tell us they will fight crime and stand up for the little guy. Itís a popular sentiment that can keep them in power for many years

    On good days, I remind myself that our enemies are not the all-powerful monsters of fiction, but real people who face many obstacles, and whose plans could easily fail. Or they could simply be rendered powerless by their own culture as it enters the modern age. Our side may face a difficult fight, but so do they, and we are stronger.

    On bad days, I wonder if future historians will debate how many lives could have been saved if we had used nuclear weapons sooner.

  6. Jonathan: I hope Lileks is right. Time will tell. This current alert certainly seems to have alarmed the Bush administration, not usually a group of nervous nellies.

    Mike K.: I think the symbolism works at many levels, including the level you refer to. But I think it is much more general than the 1930s, and in fact the book was conceived during and after World War I. The Shire is like Britain before WWI, guarded and protected by people who are unknown, or barely known to the people who unwisely take their peaceful life for granted. In the book it was the Rangers who guarded the Shire, in the real world it was the “pipe-clay and scarlet” British Army which policed the Empire, and the British Navy which patrolled the seas — barely known and often despised by the people they guarded. We have a similar situation now. Sam Gamgee, as Tolkien himself said, is the main hero of the book, the ordinary, decent man who comes through time and again and saves the world. Who is Sam? He is the typical British soldier, like those whom Tolkien commanded in the war, who would prefer to be home tending his vegetable garden, but who goes to the ends of the earth and fights bravely and loyally when duty calls. I could go on and on about Tolkien, but most people find it tiresome. (Incidentally, Belmont Club has a good recent post about Tolkein.)

    I don’t agree about the draft. The British and the Americans both did very well without a draft for most of their histories. Unless we faced a massive opponent which required a massive land army, we are better off as we are. Most importantly, the military itself does not want draftees. If the public does not understand military matters, then educate them. There are other ways to do this beside drafting their unwilling teenages. The book to read on this is Citizens and Soldiers by Eliot Cohen. Cohen’s conclusion is that the only reason to have a draft is if the military needs lots and lots of personnel. All other “civic” and “educational” purposes are ill-served by a draft which is not absolutely necessary by the military for expressly military purposes. In particular, it is very difficult politically to employ draftees overseas or in wars which are not clearly about immediate existential threats to the nation. We will not be facing wars of that type in the immediate future, even if we are hit with a nuclear weapon. A large army composed of draftees is simply not the answer to the problems we face.

    Peter and Mark: I agree. We will win. I just don’t think we will do so soon, or at low cost. Again, I hope I’m wrong.

    As to nuclear weapons, I tend to think their utility is limited. “Nuking Mecca” or something like that would simply play into the hands of Osama and his ilk, bringing about a civilizational conflict we are trying to avoid. Can the United States really put into practice a genocidal policy aimed at one billion muslims? I don’t think we can, morally or practically. Bush has chosen the wiser, harder, braver course — reform them and make them conform to civilized norms, appeal to the desires of ordinary people in these countries for a better life and help them to attain it. Wage the “civilizational struggle” on the political and cultural and economic plane rather than the military plane to the maximum degree possible. Will it work? Too early to say. But future historians will be able to say that we tried to do this in a morally tolerable way. Belmont Club has a good post on this exact topic, here

  7. I think the Tolkien analogy works as well for WWI but I don’t think the Kaiser’s Germany was the tower of evil that Tolkien envisioned in the books. There were portraits of the Kaiser in Chicago public schools until WWI. I have been told this by an uncle. Did you know that there was a prominent British physician in the late 19th century named Sam Gamgee ? The RSM Journal did a profile on him earlier this year. I wonder if Tolkien knew him ?

    As far as the draft is concerned, I’m forced to agree but we lose something as a society when we have a professional army with a gulf between it and the average citizen. Thomas Rick’s book on Marine boot camp raised this issue.

  8. Lex, you can pray for me whenever you want.

    My own somewhat overwrought (and two-year-old) Tolkien commentary is here. It’s interesting to read the reaction to it from somebody who’s not a boomer. ;)

  9. Jay, thanks for the link. Good essay. It merits a more detailed response which I won’t do now. (I’m about to peel the potatoes for Christmas dinner.)

    I suppose I hadn’t realized how all-pervasive the book was in its day. The U of C admissions staff must have torn their hair out to read all those applications talking about Tolkien. U of C is the Mount Olympus of intellectual snobbery. North America will sink into the sea before his name would ever be mentioned in an English class there, though I suppose a condescending, disparaging reference, meant to slap the simple human joy out of some 18 year old, must occur from time to time. It would be just one step in the process of reducing him or her to the shambling, neurotic husk which is the preferred end-product of a “liberal education” at Chicago.

    I know hippies loved him, but to me Tolkien is against everything they “stood for”, to the extent that amidst the LSD and THC they stood for anything.

    I think I am technically a “boomer”, born in 1963, at the very end of it. We “late” boomers grew up in opposition to the squalid mess our seniors created, but were forever doomed to follow in its wake, its pale shadow. When I went to law school, after working for five years, the younger people were very clearly products of a different generational milieu.

    The book is a crazy masterpiece, sui generis like Moby Dick, not “of” any particular time. It will last far beyond the petty squabbles, intellectual fashions, or generational complexes of our day.

  10. “Some of the people reading this blog, and possibly some of those posting on it, are going to die violently at their hands, and not in decades but in days or months or a few years.” Chin up, friend. The Air France plot was foiled, and A-Q once again humiliated. After 9-11 I predicted that in a few years we’d look around and ask ourselves why we were so worried about those punks? After the first phase of Afghanistan, I read a Marine officer quote about the Taliban being “the most incompetant opponent we’ve faced since the Barbary pirates.” Wonder what that guy thinks now about the Iraqi Ba’athists. All we have to do is keep the tangos away from the nukes until they’re all dead or old and their kids think they’re a bunch of embarrassing a-holes.
    Keep the faith, brother.

  11. Thanks, Pedro. I hope you are right. If these guys go down without doing too much more damage, terrific. Let’s not assume anything, though.

  12. I agree with Pedro. So far apart from 9/11, all Al Queda has achieved is a few pathetic bomb and RPG attacks. 9/11 basically consisted of overpowering a couple of unarmed airline stewardesses and cockpit crew, then flying planes in a straight line. Hardly difficult.

    In the 2 years since, they have done absolutely nothing of note. Their perfect chance, to blow up a hundred or two troops in Iraq, has gone begging, and civilian Iraqi government gets closer by the day. Their top brass is either captured, killed, or isolated. All Gulf states + Pakistan realise that to assist them or give sanctuary will result in rapid regime change. Their closest allies dare not assist them.

    Al Queda at best have a few frightened leaders cowering in safe houses and caves in the middle east, wondering where all the money has gone and why their terrorist cells can’t string a single decent attack together. The organisation is destined to launch the odd pathetic attack from time to time, much like the IRA, but without that group’s freedom of operation or organisational skills. Quite frankly, Al Queda in its current state would struggle to organise a piss-up in a brewery.

    I am quite frankly appalled by the apocalyptic bedwetting displayed by the blogosphere. The threat from the USSR was always overplayed, and we beat that without much problem. Now a handful of useless ragheads are supposed to result in the collapse of western civilisation? Sheer nonsense. My bet is that Bin Laden is captured before the end of Bush’s 2nd inevitable term, and that by 2010 people will wonder what the fuss was about. And 98% of commentators will look back and shake their heads, muttering “Good god, what was I thinking?”

    We’re cowering in front of an imaginary Sauron, who is in fact nothing but a pathetic little Golem.

  13. Mr. Bright, I really don’t think the USSR was overplayed. A book came out a month ago about how far we were infilrated by them. I gave it to my dad for Christmas and told him I wanted it next. He glanced thru it, said, “I didn’t know Stalin was involved in North Korea,” (something close to that), and well, there’s much more to be learned.

    One thing’s for sure, my daughter’s history teachers will tremble when I walk in the room.

    And she had better be graded fairly for unpopular opinions.

  14. Cobden,

    I’d rather assume we are dealing with some modern time Sauron, and plan accordingly, increasing the odds of success in our favour, rather than walk around with our hands in our pockets, always assuming the other guy is weaker, only to discover we’ve been blindsided and have to scramble a response.

    The latter is a recipe for disaster, the taste of which we unfortunately sampled on one bright September morning. Never again. If one must assume the opponent is Evil itself in order to deal with it properly and effectively, then so be it.

    Never, ever, underestimate the enemy. Leave the condescending sneering of our imaginary or excessive fears for future generations and their 20/20 hindsight. It is the goal, after all: to be able, some day, to look back and talk about our foe in the past tense, as a distant nightmare that was so clearly vanquished and destroyed it scarcely seems worth the anxiety and the anguish that animated us at the time.

    Until then, our motto shall be that only the paranoid survive.

  15. Cobden may be right, but Sylvain’s position is a must for a free society. Better to be over than under-prepared.

  16. and oops! A really GREAT posting Lexington. May the Lord and His Mother bless you and yours all year long.

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