Over the last week, I’ve been giving considerable thought to the themes that motivate my forthcoming novel: the far-reaching (and often unrecognized) effects of war and the importance of storytelling in the process of healing moral and psychological wounds suffered by both individuals and the body politic.
Partly, this thought is prompted by my teaching duties: my AP Lit classes are beginning our unit in war literature, while my Senior English classes will study Homer’s Iliad in the near future. Partly, it is prompted by current events: the Doomsday Clock being set at just two minutes from the midnight of nuclear annihilation and the continuing rash of suicide bombings like today’s in Kabul, Afghanistan. And partly, it is prompted by my own moral and philosophical contemplation as it manifests itself in my creative work.
The third catalyst for this line of thought was largely ignited by questions from one of the editors who worked on The Meadow. Without giving away too much of the novel (I’d love for you to read it, after all!), Walt’s father has kept his experiences in World War II hidden from his sons. Otto’s struggle with moral and psychological wounds has been a private struggle of nearly a quarter century.
Not surprisingly, like any repressed struggle, Otto’s has serious consequences. He views his sons, Walt and Clay, as having the capacity to atone for his sins and to repay a debt Otto feels he owes his nation. While Clay’s vision of his future aligns with what his father envisions for him, Walt’s most certainly doesn’t. The result takes its toll on their family.
My editor asked me to consider Otto’s allegiances and whether Otto viewing his sons’ service as settling his perceived debt to the nation for his mistakes should instead compel him to want to keep his sons from serving.
I see where the editor is coming from. During his service, Otto has done something terrible, something that has morally and psychologically wounded him. If a nation can expect and compel her sons to commit acts contradicting the morals that govern civil life and with which those sons have been raised, how can Otto want to place Walt and Clay in a situation that will likely compel them to perform the very act that Otto has carried with him?
The answer is complicated, and in answering it, I’ll begin by tipping my hat to my pastor, Carl Brewer, at St. John Lutheran Church in Luxemburg. Pastor Brewer is an outstanding teacher, and one thing he’s referenced in both his sermons and in Bible studies is the fact that we’re simultaneously citizens of two kingdoms--the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. It’s a concept framed beautifully by Jesus in Matthew Chapter 22, Verse 21: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”
Pastor Brewer highlights the tension in this dynamic, pointing out that such dual expectations will likely bump heads. In Otto’s case, heads bump. Seen from the angle of the nation he serves and the military that has trained him, Otto’s act on Crucifix Hill in 1944 warrants his reward: the G.I. Bill loan that enabled Otto to buy the farm his parents homesteaded in emigrating from Germany. Seen from another angle, that act on Crucifix Hill will have ramifications for his soul; from this angle, Otto views himself as a failure, a sinner.
Which perspective takes precedence?
The irony in this dynamic is that Otto simultaneously holds both views and cannot adequately reconcile them with one another.
As a citizen of two kingdoms, Otto is conflicted, which brings us back to the question posed by my editor: how can Otto want to place Walt and Clay in a situation that will likely compel them to perform the very act that has wounded Otto?
The answer begins with Otto as an American and his perceived debt to the nation. He believes that the promise of America is best nurtured through service. When your nation needs you, you answer the call. America needs Walt and Clay to serve in Vietnam; there’s no question, in Otto’s mind, that his sons should and will serve. To Otto, we're born indebted to the nation affording us our freedoms and opportunities.
It continues in Otto’s view of his post-service life. He’s able to buy his parents’ farm through the loan given him by his nation because of his service. The farm has provided for him and his family, has given them a good life. It has enriched his life in this earthly kingdom.
As a child of God, however, Otto carries guilt for his actions on Crucifix Hill.
Ultimately, as happens to many of us when allegiance to two kingdoms comes into conflict, the more immediate of the two takes precedence. Such is Otto’s case.
That doesn’t mean Otto’s allegiance to the kingdom of God is forgotten, though. Otto also sees his sons as the atonement for his sin--the only sort of atonement he can offer. Yes, they will quite possibly face circumstances like those Otto faced. Yes, they will be expected to kill (and perhaps die) in the name of the nation they serve. And yes, they may actually both kill and die.
However, Otto hopes that if either Walt or Clay should face the same circumstance he faced on Crucifix Hill, they will make a choice other than the one he made--that they will be better men than he was. And doing this is not something Otto sees as a betrayal of his country.
Rather, it is the opening, however small, in the immensity of obligation to an earthly kingdom that allows for the fulfillment of obligations to a heavenly kingdom. Otto hopes that in Walt and Clay, he has raised men who are better than he is, who can rise above whatever emotions may influence their judgment in a moment of crisis--and that in having raised such sons, he will have repaid what he perceives as a debt of immense proportions.
Is Otto’s rationalization of these circumstances reasonable? Yes--and no. As much as Otto would like it to be, his is not an either/or situation. It’s a both/and. He’s given to Caesar what’s Caesar’s, but he fears, rightly or wrongly, that he’s given Caesar what is God’s.
Therein lies the tension that drives The Meadow. Otto’s inability to bring his moral and psychological injuries into the light of day has ramifications for Otto, for his wife Anna, and for his sons.
Therein, too, lies the tension that makes The Meadow relevant in our time.
We ask young men and women to do things that conflict with what they’ve been taught their entire lives. We break them down and rebuild new versions of them capable to carrying out actions necessary to defend our nation and preserve our way of life.
But no matter how thoroughly we break them down, and no matter how effectively we rebuild them, we cannot fully erase what they’ve learned in their first 18+ years. And by the same token, when we ask these young men and women to re-enter civilian life, we cannot fully erase what they’ve been taught during their military lives.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we’re all, to varying degrees, citizens of two kingdoms, but for the men and women of the military, that term takes on an entirely different dimension, one we must all recognize: by deciding whether what we ask of them is truly necessary, by acknowledging the service they provide for us, and by encouraging them to share those stories to which we must genuinely listen with our heads and our hearts.