Tuesday, April 13, 2010

To whom much has been given (Sunday Reflections for April 18, 2010)

This week marks the 40th anniversary of one of the great “happy ending” stories of modern times: the flight of Apollo 13. At the time, I was experiencing the last weeks of junior high and so was more than a bit distracted. I remember it happening but it took Ron Howard’s 1995 movie Apollo 13 for me to learn the story in detail. Even prior to that, however, those events had provided a phrase for my lectionary and that of many others: “Houston, we have a problem” (though the actual words spoken by Jack Swigert were “Houston, we’ve had a problem”).

Apollo 13 was to have been the third human landing on the Moon. Instead, an oxygen tank rupture, two days after the April 11, 1970 launch, rendered the craft nearly inoperable as well as nearly unsustainable for its three-man crew. The story, told well in Howard’s movie, is one of calm ingenuity under immense pressure, by the ship’s crew and the Mission Control staff in Houston. With the absolute minimum of necessary power and barely avoiding fatal carbon monoxide poisoning, Apollo 13 did a single loop around the Moon and limped home to a Pacific splash down on April 17. Later NASA deemed the mission a “successful failure.”

Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book chronicling the beginning of the US space program focused on the first test pilots and Mercury astronauts. In his title, Wolfe deemed these men to have The Right Stuff. That “stuff” was obviously still present ten years later and was the only thing that made Apollo 13’s failure a success rather than the catastrophe many expected.

My memory of that time has other events imprinted more vividly, however. In addition to being a rocky time for my family (on top of the usual early-adolescent angst), it was also a time of great upheaval for the country. A new president, Richard Nixon, had won election promising he had a plan to get the United States out of Vietnam. After a little over a year in office, that plan wasn’t going so well.

The South Vietnamese military was not stepping up to replace American forces the way they were supposed to. In order to give our allies a leg up, President Nixon ordered an “incursion” into neighboring Cambodia to root out Communist Vietnamese forces that had taken refuge there. Nixon’s April 30th nationally televised address announcing the invasion was two weeks after Apollo 13’s return and I still remember it. The glow of Apollo 13’s rescue was quickly lost.

The following week on May 4, 4 students were killed and 9 injured by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University. Some of the students were part of a crowd protesting the Cambodian operation but others were just bystanders. Almost immediately college campuses across the country were engulfed in protests and violence. Hundreds of campuses were closed as 4 million students went on strike.

My brother was a freshman at Southern Illinois University. A little over a week after the Kent State deaths he called home: “Come get me. They’ve closed the school.” My dad and I jumped in the car and made the long boring drive to SIU (Interstate 57 was only partially completed then). It certainly looked like the war had come to Carbondale. Every window in the downtown was broken. A campus building had been burned. The National Guard had set up an outpost right next to my brother’s dorm.

To borrow NASA’s language, it’s hard not to view the events of May 1970 and everything leading up to them as a horrendously unsuccessful failure. Perhaps the most well-known chronicle of America’s Vietnam experience is David Halberstam’s 1972 The Best and the Brightest. His title, like Wolfe’s, highlights the unique abilities of the people involved in this national endeavor. His title, however, is highly ironic, of course.

The question Halberstam pursues is how such able and intelligent people could have gone so horribly wrong in virtually every way: in their expectations, strategy and execution of the war. These were the “whiz kids” brought to Washington by President Kennedy and largely retained by President Johnson. Renowned leaders of business and academia, their self-confidence led them to arrogantly pursue, in Halberstam’s words, “brilliant policies that defied common sense,” which often ignored contrary judgments of lower level military and foreign policy officials. (This was something I heard of first hand from a college professor of mine who was a retired Green Beret general. Stationed in Vietnam before the buildup, his negative evaluations of the war’s prospects were not welcomed at the Pentagon. Realizing his career was at a dead-end as a result, he moved on to college teaching.)

A similar story is beginning to be told about the 2008 financial meltdown. Of course, the events of this saga are likely still being played out. It is already clear, however, that the precipitating causes of our current economic collapse have all over them the fingerprints of many of today’s “best and brightest.”

It’s obvious that the heads of the nation’s “too big to fail” Wall Street banks are made of equal parts brilliance and arrogance. It has been documented how these firms also regularly recruited thousands of the top graduates of the country’s best colleges and universities. By their own admission, many of them now admit they had one goal: make lots of money—which they did, often beyond their wildest dreams. Put to such use, however, their education and brilliance have now cost us and people around the world houses, jobs, savings and still unfolding economic misery, beyond most people’s worst nightmares.

Interviewed about their flight, Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell was asked if the crew was ever scared or thought of dying. Matter-of-factly he said no, they were just too busy carrying out their various tasks. And even if they had run out of things to do to save themselves, Lovell went on, they knew that, until the power or oxygen gave out, they would continue to send data and report their findings so that it could be figured out later what had gone wrong. That was their job.

In Luke’s parable of the faithful steward, Jesus concludes by saying, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.” I suspect that if the Apollo 13 crew or those who had been down below in Mission Control were to hear those words, they would be received with a shrug-of-the-shoulders “Well of course.” Yet that wisdom or awareness seems to have escaped many of those in the midst of our current national crisis.

As we enter graduation season, I hope commencement speakers will use this crisis as an opportunity to convey both the blessings and the responsibilities talent and opportunity carry, and warn against the irresponsibility and harm of selfishly misusing them. If they do, those speakers will certainly have no trouble providing living examples of people who have chosen each of those paths, and of the consequences of the choices they made.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Note the commentary/update in the following post.