Monday, August 3, 2009

The Power of Baseball

I'm standing in sand. The sun is blazing over Fort Bliss, Texas. Ten miles south, just beyond the US border with Mexico, drug cartels are murdering people by the hundreds. Open source reports put the number of dead at more than 1000 since January. The sand is so hot that I can feel the heat through the soles of my boots.

I'm embedded in a group of Army National Guard soldiers from Wisconsin who are deploying to Iraq. During their welcome to Fort Bliss, military leaders said that it's less dangerous in Baghdad than it is on the Mexican border.

They eat their breakfasts in chow halls while the television reports on the economic crisis. Soldiers remark about the stimulus packages that Congress is reeling out and wonder if it's a good idea to borrow billions from China. One soldier, in a moment of downtime before going to bed, reads from Alexander Tyler's “The Cycle of Democracy” published in 1770.

“Nations have progressed in this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependency; from dependency back again to bondage.”

A mild debate occurs regarding where America is at in this proposed cycle.

The debate doesn't last long. Their thoughts are heavy with news that a soldier who had been with the unit for 6 years was just killed in Afghanistan by an Improvised Explosive Device after being deployed with another unit. Eyes go wet with memories and settle into a thousand yard stare as they cope with business they've chosen. It won't be long before these Texas sands become Middle Eastern sands.

Times have never been so uncertain. When in the company of these brave men and women who are offering all for their nation, one's soul becomes ravenous for unity and strong, sensible civic leadership. These young people deserve it.

They, of all Americans, have earned the right to deserve such leadership. They heave their packs on their backs and sling their weapons in the intense heat. These young people embody the best values of their nation and possess a character which doesn't simply make an argument and then evacuate to comfort. They stand in harm's way to establish it.

It is an argument of freedom, of representative democracy, of mutual respect, of tolerance. It is an argument for a peaceful society where people are able to pursue the ends of their abilities without oppression and degradation. Those who decide to send these brave soldiers forward to fight for the preservation and protection of American interests possess a massive mantel of moral responsibility.

When these soldiers are about to be overwhelmed by the ferocious and chaotic portrait of the world they are forced to face, a simple white baseball emerges. When you think these young soldiers have been stressed to the end of their capabilities with language training, culture immersion, convoy operation tactics, physical exercise, marksmanship, dehydration, casualty carries, and sunburn, baseball gloves emerge from bunks. Soldiers who have been released for the day push through the door of the barracks and into the sand in their PT shorts and t-shirts.

The sun swipes the horizon with orange and red. Before this backdrop an ever-widening game of catch unfolds. A squad leader throws to a team leader. The ball smacks the dusty leather glove. A team leader grips the ball and makes the throw to his gunner or driver. The talk begins. The chatter about who's reporting to spring training, who did or didn't report to training camp, who's confessing to steroid use, who's going to hit the most homeruns, who's a garbage pail, and who's money. All this between the throws and the crisp smack of the leather.

The sun dips below the horizon. These sons and daughters of America immerse themselves in the miracle of American baseball. The warm blowing wind peppers their skin with grains of sand but their minds are revisiting a Midwestern ball diamond.

Instead of sand stretching for miles, there is fresh-trimmed greenery from the infield to the fence. Vendors are calling out “Cold beer!” and “Hot dogs, here!” The occasional scent of cigar smoke wafts by. They're catching up with their buddies in between pitches, lunging for foul balls as they drop, heckling the visiting team, and rising to their feet to watch the long balls meteor into the outfield stands. Future National Anthems will nevermore merely be song sung. It will wet their eyes for fallen brethren, and steel the heart with sacrificial pride as the wind shimmers through the flag.

They will face their next challenges bravely, and assault forward into all the tumult of this wild world. A bravery like this could not be sustained without a deep and abiding peace that exists between the foul lines in a simple game of catch.

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