Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

The Importance of Being Earnest Readers

The story is often told of Ulysses S. Grant’s response to persons around President Johnson who suggested putting Robert E. Lee on trial for what we now call “war crimes” immediately following the Civil War. When he heard of this proposal, Grant went to the president and told him that if he did any such thing, all the top commanders of the Army would immediately resign. Johnson wisely dropped the issue.

But it is an instructive lesson. We are used to speaking of war as “uncivilized.” Some wars are, to be sure. But a certain respect is shown by officers and soldiers of one army to their enemy counterparts. This is, perhaps, the heritage of the medieval notion of chivalry. It is not exactly “turning the other cheek,” of course, because that is not what a soldier is for. But he makes it possible.

A number of stories are told about a Christmas Day truce during World War I when German and Allied soldiers greeted one another across enemy lines. These were in the days when you could identify your enemy by his uniform, when soldiers and non-combatants were distinguishable. Loss of this distinction is of one of the most horrible things about recent wars.

One day in class, I mentioned the famous scene in the movie “Patton” in which the mystical-sounding general is on a bluff overlooking Palermo during the World War II invasion of Sicily. Patton turns to an aide and, almost speaking to himself, says that below him is the most captured city in the history of mankind, almost as if he can see the other conquerors in himself.

Not long after making this comment, I received an e-mail from a student remarking that Patton was “quite a character.” No doubt he was an “unforgettable character.” The e-mail added: “There was nothing more that he [Patton] could say in praise of Rommel but that he had read his book.” I had never seen that remark before. It quite struck me.

Field Marshal Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel, known famously as the “Desert Fox” during World War II, was the commander of the Afrika Korps in Libya. He was one of those brave Germans who sought to eliminate Hitler, but the plot failed. Rommel was executed, and was given the privilege of being his own executioner.

Rommel wrote two military books before the war that became famous: “Infantrie greift an” and “Panzer greift an” (“Infantry Attacks” and “Tank Attacks”). This was right down Patton’s alley. It must have been these books that Patton read. Wise soldiers learn from other soldiers.

All good military men read “On War,” by Prussian Major-General Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz. And any man, commander or otherwise, at all curious about the topic of war reads the Athenian historian and admiral Thucydides. His “History of the Peloponnesian War” is an account of the war between the Spartans and the Athenians, which remains the war of all wars even today. Because of Thucydides, we know a great deal not just about that particular war, but about war itself and human nature in battle.

As an aside, I might note here that when the Bavarian Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in Rome (before becoming pope), he was affectionately known as the Panzer Kardinal, a phrase obviously coming from Rommel. Like Lee, Rommel was respected by and a teacher of his enemies.

What I like about the statement cited above, however, is the idea that we “praise” a man most simply by “reading his book.” I always like to add that we can still so “praise” Thucydides, von Clausewitz and the author of “Panzer greift.”

ortimer Adler once wrote a very detailed book called “How to Read a Book.” My friend, Peter Repdath, wrote a book entitled, “How to Read a Difficult Book.” When one reads a Commentary of Aquinas on, say, the Metaphysics of Aristotle – a very worthwhile thing to do – it is quickly evident that Aquinas is a most deliberate and exact reader who carefully orders what he finds in Aristotle.

At a certain point in our lives, it becomes evident that not all those people who we want to read are still alive. We can only find what they tell us by what they write in books. It is an uncanny thing to read a book of someone not in our time, or not in our space.

Naturalized British writer Hilaire Belloc said that places do not remain the same. What they once were can only be caught in the description of someone who lived in the place and time. This is what the novels of Wendell Barry are about, I think.

In his wonderful book “The Four Men,” Belloc writes of the beginning of his walk in his home county of Sussex. He is in a pub called The George at Robertsbridge. Suddenly he remembers “the woods of home” and “the lake where the Arun [river] rises.” So he asks himself, “What are you doing?” He realizes that he is on some business that takes him across the sea, mainly “to earn.” Upon his return, he will spend more than he earns. Then, it comes to him: “All the while your life runs past you like a river, and the things that are of moment to men you do not heed at all.”

It is worth a lifetime to come across such a sentence and to read it again and again. It is true that if we are not careful, we will not “heed” the things that are “of moment to men.” For this reason, it is worth the “praise” that Patton paid to Rommel to read Belloc’s “The Four Men,” to be at the Inn at Robertsbridge with “their port” on October 29, 1902, in this world, in Sussex, to “heed the things that are of moment to men.”

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is a professor of government. He can be reached at AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT. appears every other Friday, with Fr. Maher and Fr. Schall alternating as writers.

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