Monks Making A Living

Posted in: history,Spirituality by bill-o on May 29, 2010

CNN had a very good article recently about monks: “Monks making money: A business beyond prayer”. The article covers the history of Western monasticism and how monks today in the United States earn money to support themselves and their monasteries.

As the article points out, monks have some of the same concerns that we all do, including a slumping economy and rising health care costs. The monks also face a need to be entrepreneurial with their side businesses and yet also maintain a solitary of life of prayer.

Symbolic Height

Posted in: history by bill-o on May 24, 2010

For more than 150 years, the insignia of rank for officers in the United States military has consisted of stars, eagles, oak leaves, and bars. Veterans and current service members are well aware of these insignia and their significance as per authority and responsibility. These insignia is also where the past meets the present: History buffs of the American Civil War can see the same insignia for the same ranks on the officer uniforms from the Civil War Era as they would see on military uniforms today (with the exception of the gold insignia as discussed in a moment …). Insignia are living symbols, tying the officers today to the rich military tradition of the past.

What many people may not be aware of is that the origin of these symbols is not entirely clear. We do know that the gold insignia (2nd lieutenant and major in the U.S. Army, USAF, and USMC), as opposed to silver with all of the others, came after the Civil War in order to give these two ranks specific insignia like all of the other officers. We also know the years in which colonels received their eagles and captains and 1st lieutenants their bars. What we don’t know is the exact origin of the stars, eagles, oak leaves, and bars.

Yet a simple examination of the insignia, taken together as a whole, gives the right context for us. The highest ranks are the generals and admirals who wear stars. The more stars, the higher the rank. Stars are high up in the night sky. Multiple stars form constellations. Eagles, the rank of colonels, soar high above most other birds, but they are less high than the stars, of course. Oak leaves are next down the list of ranks, and leaves are the highest and most visible part of any tree. The remaining ranks consist of bars, which could be comparable to branches, the part of the tree that is lower and less visible than its leaves.

It’s this “symbolic height” that can give even the casual observer a sense of the rank of each officer.

Crop Mobs

Posted in: Popular Culture by bill-o on May 23, 2010

The newspaper USA Today had a good article recently about the new phenomena called “crop mobs”: “Crop Mobs Sprout up on Farms”. Wikipedia also has a short article about crop mobs.

Evidently, crop mobs are a rural version of flash mobs. With crop mobs, people from suburban or urban regions network together, usually via social networking via the Internet, to congregate at a rural farm. They then spend the day working together as a team to help the farmer do things that he would not be able to do by himself. The farms are often organic; therefore, they are more labor intensive since they can’t use pesticides. The farmer therefore gets labor that he couldn’t otherwise afford, and the crop mob gets the chance to experience rural farm work and community.

Perhaps this renewal of love for the agrarian life is a symbol of the times in the Western world. Shadows and Symbols recently made an attempt to see one of the most famous agrarian authors, Wendell Berry, speak in person, but the venue was packed full so was unable to attend. Perhaps this too is is a harbinger of a return to an appreciation for farms and the rural lifestyle.

Bearing the Shame

Posted in: history by bill-o on

This Spring is the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, which was the last major battle in the American strategy of “island hopping” by capturing successive islands in the western Pacific Ocean from the Japanese Imperial Army. The battle lasted for two and a half months and resulted in the defeat of the Japanese by mid-June 1945. A total of 1/4-million combatants and civilians died on the island during the 82 days of fighting.

By this late stage of the war, the Japanese fighting forces had been reduced to a fraction of their capabilities four years earlier. Stepping into this increasingly bleak situation for the Japanese was the man who would become the primary strategist for the Japanese army on Okinawa. His name was Lt. Col. Hiromichi Yahara. Col. Yahara, a war college professor for most of World War II, knew that victory over the Americans on Okinawa was not possible. Therefore, the best strategy for his side was to use Okinawa simply to wear down the American and British forces as much as possible in order to make their eventual invasion of the Japanese home islands more difficult. In support of this strategic goal, Col. Yahara planned for a “defense in depth” strategy. With this plan, Japanese soldiers would engage the Americans only in defensive ways, even to the point of retreating backward to more defendable positions. Col. Yahara’s superior officers did not always listen to his recommendations, but his overall suggestions were adhered to throughout much of the battle.

In spite of Col. Yahara’s strategies, the Americans did succeed in securing most of Okinawa by the beginning of the Summer of 1945. By that point, Col. Yahara and his commanding generals were reduced to living in a cave. They were then each faced with the choice of surrendering, taking off their uniforms and trying to blend into the civilian population, or committing suicide. The cultural norm of the Japanese army was for its field commanders to kill themselves rather than accept the shame and embarrassment of being captured, so each of the senior officers in the cave were prepared to end their own lives.

But before Col. Yahara could take his own life, his superior officers ordered him not to. In the future, someone would need to tell the story of the battle from the Japanese side, and the generals in charge knew that Col. Yahara, as their strategist for the battle, was the best man to record that story for future generations. One of the generals told Col. Yahara that, yes, this would mean that he would have to bear the shame of being captured by the enemy. However, that shame would pass away in time, and that shame would be outweighed by the colonel’s chance to write down the stories of the battle for the sake of history.

Col. Yahara obeyed the order of his generals, even after they themselves had committed suicide. He took off his uniform, went out of his cave, and attempted to blend in with the surrounding population. Eventually, Col. Yahara was recognized and taken prisoner.

Years later, in 1973, he published his book on the battle of Okinawa. His book is now available in English as well as in Japanese. Col. Yahara died in 1981.