Illustration by Bob AulIt took roughly 20 seconds for five bellowing Marines in full camouflage combat gear—the whites of their eyes glowing hollow through the thick war paint on their faces—to charge through a rear door of the Stonecreek Christian Church in Rancho Santa Margarita, stampede through the aisles, and assemble a mortar launcher on the altar.
"This weapon fires ammunition 10,000 feet into the air and four miles away," Captain John F. Warren III informed the few dozen at-risk kids from Girls and Boys Town—sociological descendants of the original Father Flanagan's Boys Town in Nebraska—who live in group homes in Orange County. "When the stuff comes down, thousands of little pieces of hot metal—called shrapnel—are sprayed over an area of about 40 yards. Of course, the person who fires it doesn't see that."
Nor did anybody see the poignance (or irony or absurdity or offensiveness—take your pick) of positioning this modern piece of killing machinery directly in front of a more primitive example—the church's tall, polished wooden cross, which three days after Easter Sunday was still draped in white linen to signify that Jesus Christ, a.k.a. the Prince of Peace, had survived his brutal crucifixion. At least nobody said anything about it.
Instead, Warren, who looked like a recruiting poster come to life in his crisp dress uniform, boy-next-door good looks and all-around aura of gentle but unshakeable confidence, dished out a quote from General Douglas MacArthur, the World War II and Korean War commander who begged President Harry Truman to drop nuclear bombs on the Chinese. The essence of the quotation—we didn't write fast enough to get it down and couldn't find it in Bartlett's or online—was something about how soldiers who give their lives for their country are the noblest form of mankind.
Then Warren came up with a quotation of his own, nodding toward the mortar on the altar and his war-ready Marine colleagues and describing their life-risking and life-taking work as "the rawest form of patriotism." He called it that twice.
Warren and his leathernecks recently returned from combat in Afghanistan—and they were openly betting they'll soon be back in action in Iraq. They were invited to relate their war experiences as a favor to somebody in the Girls and Boys Town organization.
Beneath the Stonecreek Christian Church's huge wooden cross, facing an Easter banner that proclaimed "HE'S ALIVE," the Marines told exciting stories of walking fearfully through a maze of deadly land mines and showed slides of the camp they dug out of the freezing desert. They let the kids play with equipment—trying on gas masks and night-vision goggles—and pose for pictures next to the mortar launcher.
The whole thing took a couple of hours. It was an educational program, you might say, a way of expanding the kids' awareness of world geography, events and issues. Then again, you might say it was propaganda—the manipulation of young perspectives, melding their love of God and country in a way that presents war as holy. Call it as you see it.
But there is no question that the kids loved it. Mission accomplished.