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War in America and the Cause of Our Joy

The Warehouse District in New Orleans, a stone’s throw from the French Quarter, is home to eclectic art galleries; one of-a-kind shops; and two very different museums, though these particular museums share the same theme: war. Located at 945 Magazine Street, the World War II Museum is the most popular attraction in the city. It is the third most visited museum in the United States and the eighth most visited museum in the world. Located at 929 Camp Street, Louisiana’s Confederate Civil War Museum is less than a five-minute walk from its far more celebrated counterpart on Magazine Street. Having opened in 1891, it is the oldest museum in Louisiana, and for those interested in Southern history, art, and culture, it is sometimes included as part of a visit to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, located right next door.

General George Patton once delivered a famous address to his troops in which he said, among other things, that “America loves a winner.” To a great extent, he was right, and his assertion probably has much to do with the World War II Museum’s status as a must-see attraction, while the Civil War Museum is nowadays overlooked by most visitors to the city, after all, it’s a museum dedicated to a “Lost Cause.”

It had been a few years since my last visit to the World War II Museum, but with family coming into the area recently, it made for a good way to spend a Saturday afternoon. The museum is not far from Saint Patrick’s Church, where the Latin Mass is celebrated every Sunday at 9:30. As far as I know, the Latin Mass has never ceased being celebrated at Saint Patrick’s, and for that reason, it has been part of my family’s Catholic experience for decades. For me, getting to Saint Patrick’s entails passing the World War II Museum, so while Saint Patrick’s is no longer my home parish, I go there often enough to have seen firsthand the continual growth of the museum’s footprint.

There is now a full-fledged hotel and conference center that is part of the campus, along with a couple of restaurants. There is a 48-minute 4D movie along with a 1940s-era “Cantina” that hosts musical performances throughout the year. With multiple gift shops and interactive exhibits, it is not far from what Walt Disney might have created had he been around to contribute to the effort. This museum does what the Civil War Museum could never do: it makes one feel good.

How does a museum focused on war make you feel good? Well, for starters, the World War II Museum is dedicated to a war that was won. Secondly, as far as I can tell, it is completely divorced from any association with its predecessor, World War I. This lack of context makes the museum, its contents, and its story easier to understand: bad guys started taking over territory and killing innocent people, and we stepped in to stop tyranny from taking over the world. Thirdly, the museum makes one feel good because it is in many ways a celebration of Americans working together, truly united behind a common cause.

While the museum is intended and designed to make one feel good, it actually has almost the opposite effect on me now — not because I am a cynic, or any less American than I was when I first visited the museum, but because of how it seems to embody the idea that not only do the victors get to write the history of a particular war, but a victorious war can be used to support issues and causes that were seemingly never part of the original reasons for the war in the first place.

Hosted by Tom Hanks, the 4D movie, Beyond All Boundaries, is, like most everything at the museum, well done in terms of aesthetics. Forty-eight minutes is not a lot of time in which to pack in a great deal of insight, so this short film obviously doesn’t go into great detail in its attempt to put a truly global conflict into some context for its audience. What it does do is conclude with very noble-sounding comments from Hanks with regard to the American fighting man having fought and served in the name of liberty.

This is not an essay on Jefferson and the impact and origin of his “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but for anyone who has ever spoken to a World War II veteran, it is obvious that they didn’t fight in the jungles of Guadalcanal so American men could one day have their “marriages” to other men be lawfully recognized. The Battle of the Bulge was not fought by men who were hoping to pave the way for gender fluidity. To be fair, the war’s sheer awfulness did in fact pacify many returning servicemen. Having seen mankind at its absolute worst, it is not uncommon for some military veterans to have something of a “whatever” attitude when it comes to certain social issues — but to imply that they fought evil abroad so we could have million-dollar lawsuits because of insensitive pronoun usage at home is clearly absurd.

Born in 1808, Jefferson Davis was named in honor of the American president at the time: Thomas Jefferson. As the only president of the Confederacy, Davis would eventually be imprisoned at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia for his role in the “Lost Cause.” Prior to his imprisonment, Davis had received a letter from Pope Pius IX (not Pius Xed.) and would receive a picture of the pontiff while in prison. At the Civil War Museum, there is today a woven crown of thorns that for years was thought to have been part of the pope’s gift to Davis but is now believed to have been a gift to Davis from his wife.

Regardless of the origin of this crown of thorns, and regardless of your views regarding America’s wars of the past, it seems that now is the time for Catholics to realize that in terms of “causes,” there is but one: the cause of Christ. All other causes are secondary at best, and at worst, they are contrary to the primary cause. The devil is not omniscient, but he has clearly been exploiting man’s propensity to get behind a cause, any cause. From breast cancer awareness to climate change, we are a nation of causes, but until Christ becomes our cause, everything else is just wishful thinking or wasted time.

It turns out that General Patton was actually stating a truth about people from all nations, not just Americans. Everyone loves a winner. That’s the problem with the Cross: it looks a whole lot like losing. Mother Mary, cause of our joy, help us to order our lives in a way that ensures we are victorious in the only cause that matters: the battle to save our souls and the souls of others.

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