April 18, 2007

You”€™ve probably never heard of the hard-edged brand of low-priced bourbon called Jeremiah Weed, and for darn good reason: It is almost unavailable, except on Air Force bases. But U.S. fighter pilots go through the stuff like airplane fuel, and some concede it tastes pretty much the same. As one airman wrote online of the drink: “€œWeed is one of those things you wonder why anyone would consume! However, after you choke down the first one you try another. After three to four, it becomes strangely pleasant and smooth…. It’s one of those creepy drinks that sneaks up on you long after you thought you had it licked, and inexplicably erases all memory of the evening.”€

Jeremiah Weed has been adopted as the almost-official liquor of America’s fighter pilots, who drink it on special occasions out of spent cannon shells”€”though none can explain exactly why. The closest thing to a trustworthy account appears in C. R. Anderegg’s memoir Sierra Hotel, where he writes of pilots who came to a desert saloon after checking out the site where one of them had crashed a plane. At a nearby bar, they convinced the bearded bartender to join them in a drinking game called “€œAfterburners”€, which involves slamming back shots of whiskey set on fire…. And you don”€™t want to hear the rest. It involves singed flesh, a blazing beard, and penitent pilots purchasing a case of cheap bourbon from a bartender who was headed for the burn ward. And thus began a tradition.  Our pilots have been choking down the stuff ever since.

By inscrutable Providence or happy accident, this bourbon shares a name with one of the Old Testament’s greatest prophets, whose message warned of fire and war (though he didn”€™t mention crashing F-16s, at least in the Douay-Rheims Catholic translation). Jeremiah taught in the seventh century B.C., at a time when the Jewish nation occupied a unique position: It stood like a deer in the headlights in the middle of the road.

Once a major power in the region under kings David and Solomon, the Jewish kingdom had torn itself apart in civil wars and lapsed from strict religious practice”€”despite a series of increasingly irritable prophets. To make things worse, the remaining land of Judah lay smack dab between two aggressive empires.

The prophets whom God sent to His people carried a two-fold message, which can be boiled down to this: “€œGo to Temple”€”and don”€™t provoke the goyim!”€ Again and again, the prophets of Israel countered the claims of ambitious kings and zealous nationalists (think of them as the first neocons), whose plans for national greatness entailed risky and needless wars. In fact, the Hebrew prophets were the precursors of the Christian critique of conquest. While the Church has never advocated outright pacifism, beginning with St. Augustine it has developed increasingly strict criteria by which to judge the causes and conduct of war. The Just War tradition specified that Christians should only take part in a war if it is

“€¢ In a good cause, i.e., to repel aggression or protect the innocent. (No, “€œrevenge,”€ “€œa presidential sex scandal”€ or “€œan upcoming election”€ don”€™t count.)
“€¢ Waged by legitimate authorities.  
“€¢ Reasonably likely to succeed.
“€¢ Unlikely, proportionately, to cause more harm than good.
“€¢ The last resort after attempted negotiations.
“€¢ Waged with the minimum force necessary, making every attempt to protect civilians.

These criteria take all the fun out of war”€”banning naked land-grabs, empire building, torture, mass-rape, fire-bombing cities, and the use of America’s 10,000 or so nukes for pretty much anything at all. Since the Just War tradition is such a buzz-kill, Christians of a certain kind often argue it away as cleverly as a canon lawyer wangling an annulment for a Kennedy.

Sadly, the kings and people of Israel did something similar. They disdained their peacenik prophets, and instead marched off to disaster in places we now call Lebanon and Iraq. This suggests to us that certain current politicians eager to remake the Middle East are indeed reading their Bible. They just don”€™t understand it.

By Jeremiah’s time, the rump Jewish kingdom called Judah was a subject ally of the rising empire of Babylon. Judah had to pay tribute, but its people could live untroubled, and Jerusalem’s Temple was left untouched. Jeremiah’s message mirrored that of previous prophets: He urged the Israelites to leave well enough alone. Instead of allying with one pagan kingdom”€”and provoking the others”€”or “€œarming for peace,”€ the Jews should concentrate on pleasing God. He alone had given them their kingdom in the first place, and only He could save it. But Judah’s ruling class were not keen to listen; it didn”€™t help that Jeremiah’s idea of tact included phrases like “€œYou have polluted the land with your whoring and wickedness.”€ (Jeremiah, 3:2) Eager to throw off the yoke of Babylon, Judah’s king cut off the tribute and allied with the bumbling king of Egypt who promised to bail the Israelites out. “€œFat chance,”€ said Jeremiah. (My own, contemporary translation.)

Jeremiah wandered the countryside, often two steps ahead of a lynch mob, warning the people and king that their policies would bring on disaster: “€œI will even give them into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of them that seek their life: and their dead bodies shall be for meat unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth,”€ to be specific. (Jeremiah 34:20)

For his candor, Jeremiah was locked in chains, chased from town to town, and condemned as a traitor who did not support the troops. When the Babylonians did indeed invade, destroy Jerusalem, level the Temple, and lead almost all the Jews off to slavery in exile, those who were left behind dragged Jeremiah off to Egypt”€”where they would finally pay him back for his prescience by stoning him to death.

From all this, I draw a message for today: When politicians propose a war, get behind it. Don”€™t ask if it’s just, wise, or winnable”€”or even which country it is against. Just put that yellow ribbon sticker on your car, hunker down, and support the president. It beats getting stoned in Egypt.

Of course, that’s cold comfort to the brave souls who”€™ll have to fly combat missions over Pyongyang, Pakistan, or Paris. It’s your duty at least to pray for them”€”and maybe send a case of Jeremiah Weed.

Excerpted from The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey, and Song with the gracious permission of the author.


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