Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Call to Self-Sacrifice

The author (r., hands on table) Ft. Dix, New Jersey, 1990
     A long time ago I was a mortarman in the United States Army Reserve, and later in the National Guard.  Everyone in the mortar section had his own role: the gunner, assistant gunner, ammo bearer, etc. I was a Fire Direction Center Computer: I didn’t actually have a computer, at least not until shortly before my discharge in 1991; I was the computer, using a plotting table, pins, pencil, and paper to generate the data that enabled the gun crews to hit their unseen target.  In order to fulfill the mission, everyone needed to know his own job and do it without hesitation when the time came.  This willingness to do what each man must, rather than what he might want to do, was particularly important in the case of the unexpected, such as in the case of a “hang fire”.

     A hang fire is a very dangerous situation in which a live round does not fire, presumably because it has become stuck in the cannon (the “tube”) before striking the firing pin at the bottom.  This happened to one of the 4.2 inch mortars in my New York Army National Guard unit during a live fire exercise in Ft. Dix, New Jersey in the spring of 1990.  We carefully followed the parts assigned to us by Army regulations: everyone moved back a safe distance for a minute or so in case the charge was just slow to go off; next the gunner went back and kicked the tube (yes, this was the proper procedure) to try to knock the round loose; after that, the assistant gunner lifted the back end of the tube while the gunner cupped his hands over its mouth to catch the live round should it slide forward; after all those measures failed, we called the base demolition team who blew the cannon to bits with plastic explosives (for years afterwards I kept a jagged, twisted piece of the steel cannon as a keepsake).  Everyone did his own job, and nobody got hurt.
     I mention this, oddly enough, in the context of the discussion of female altar servers that has been occurring not only on this blog, but around the Catholic blogosphere in recent days. The connection has to do with with a different gun crew, in a different part of New Jersey, in a different century; and this was not a training exercise, but the Battle of Monmouth, in 1778. It was an extremely hot day in June, and Molly Pitcher was bringing water to her husband and and his companions as they manned a cannon during the battle.  When her husband fell, Molly took his place, swabbing and loading the cannon for the remainder of the battle.  Molly is quite appropriately celebrated for her bravery and patriotism.  She also showed that a woman could work quite capably as part of an artillery crew.  But she remains an exception: the United States Army did not, and does not to this day allow women to serve in combat specialties (although, regrettably, that policy is slated to change by January 1st, 2016 - a discussion for another day).  It is not simply a question of whether a women could do it, but also whether, given all other considerations, they should.
Molly Pitcher

     My post a week ago about female altar servers generated a lot of commentary, as one would expect from an issue that has so many emotional connections for people (as of this morning there were two gentlemen who were still going at it in the comboxes).  Several readers mentioned what a wonderful experience serving Mass was for their daughters. I believe them.  I don't want to devalue anyone's service to the Church: your daughters have earned our thanks for their contributions (which are, may I say again, explicitly allowed). My argument, however, was that given our overall mission there are good prudential reasons to limit service at the altar to boys (and that was before news of a survey showing that 82% of new priests previously served as altar boys, here).  Let's return to my NYNG mortar platoon for a moment: I'm sure the gunner was quite as capable of lifting up the back end of the gun, and the assistant gunner equally capable of catching the live round sliding back out; if he had done so everyone would have been grateful (including the gunner, who would have been spared the risky task), and he would have had good reason to feel proud of himself.  But the mission was better served by assigning one task to the gunner, a different task to the assistant.
     Now, I know that the Church is not the Army, although there have been plenty of people over the centuries, like St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who have seen fit to use military imagery to describe certain aspects of the Christian mission (and of course there have been actual military orders, such as the Knights Templar).  In any case, I'm looking at a more basic principle, and one that applies to much more than this relatively narrow issue: the need to subordinate our own desires, however understandable and even justified, to the greater good, and to accept the role we have been given.  The refusal to do so is at the root of so much that is wrong with our culture, but it is seen most starkly in the refusal to accept the fundamental reality of the sex with which we were created (do I need to mention the "58 genders", here, yet again?).  By keeping a clear and bright distinction between the complementary roles of male and female, we fulfill our Christian duty to be a Sign of Contradiction (as per Luke 2:34); the more we blur that distinction, the more we resemble the Wisdom of This World (1 Corinthians 3:19).