Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Presidential Moment, A Foreign Policy Dilemma

Democracy is a disorderly form of government, often inefficient, always frustrating. Maintaining liberty and security, governing in such a manner as to achieve desirable political outcomes and at the same time military effectiveness, is among the most difficult dilemmas of human governance. – Professor Richard H. Kohn, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (An Essay on Civilian Control of the Military, 1997).

President Obama was right to dismiss General Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. It is a fundamental principle of all free and democratic societies that military authority be subordinate to civilian rule and a government elected by the people. The General’s disdain for his civilian counterparts and the lack of respect on display by McChrystal’s staff in the Rolling Stone profile were alone cause for dismissal; worse was McChrystal’s poor judgment in allowing the reporter such unguarded access. It is no surprise that certain uniformed personnel – military officials, police officers, and those on the front lines of dangerous missions – out of frustration or fatigue sometimes speak contemptuously of civilian leaders. But such conversations are expected to occur in private, away from journalists and microphones.

The purpose of the military is to defend society, not to define it. Civilian control allows a nation’s popular will to define its values and to set policy, even if contrary to the desires of its military leaders, whose institutional values are, by necessity, anti-democratic. The United States Constitution makes explicit this premise. The President is the “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States” (Art. II, Sec. 2). Congress alone is granted the power to “declare War”, “[t]o raise and support Armies,” and “[t]o provide and maintain a Navy” (Art. I, Sec. 8). “The greatest danger to liberty is from large standing armies,” declared James Madison during the constitutional convention in 1787. The Founding Fathers countered the threat of an unfettered military by embedding in the Constitution the principle that military authority remains subservient to the two branches of government elected by the people.

Essential to civilian control is the military’s embrace of its Constitutional limits. We are endowed in the United States with a highly trained and professional military establishment; one committed to political neutrality, with unhesitating loyalty to the Constitution and the democratic system of government its job it is to defend. Of course, military leaders in democracies often possess great public credibility; this has been true throughout most of America’s history. And given the complexity of modern day warfare, military technology, and geo-political strategy, the military’s expertise is called upon, and often relied upon, by the president and Congress in setting strategy and deploying resources to counter threats to American security. A good president must know when to defer to military advice and when to push back. But in the final analysis, it is always the president’s call. Military leaders can and should forcefully advocate their positions and reasoning to the President and his advisers, but they must willingly accept and faithfully execute the President’s decisions. Once the line is crossed and a general’s disagreements become publicly aired, he or she risks and usually deserves reprimand or dismissal.

American history is replete with examples of presidents displaying the upper hand in public spats with their generals. During the Civil War, President Lincoln fired Union General George McClellan after McClellan repeatedly refused Lincoln’s orders to more aggressively fight Confederate forces (it did not help matters that McClellan often referred to the president in letters as an “idiot” and a “gorilla”). In 1951, President Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur after MacArthur publicly assailed Truman’s refusal to invade and attack China directly during the Korean War. Similar incidents of lesser fame include President Lyndon Johnson’s dismissal of General Curtis LeMay in 1965 after LeMay publicly criticized the White House for not carpet-bombing North Vietnamese cities. And just two years ago, President George W. Bush forced the resignation of General William J. Fallon, head of the U.S. Central Command, after Esquire magazine profiled Fallon as the Administration’s sole voice opposing an attack on Iran (a matter that, even if true, was not for public consumption and potentially undermined Bush’s strategic planning).

Although some commentators have compared Obama’s firing of McChrystal with the Truman-MacArthur feud, I do not believe this analogy apt. Truman was concerned that broadening the Korean conflict would provoke the Soviet Union and raise the specter of nuclear war, a very real concern in 1951. MacArthur wanted to take the war to China and, possessed of an inflated ego exacerbated by his popularity following World War II, believed he was essentially immune from presidential authority. After publicly criticizing the president’s conduct of the war on several occasions, MacArthur wrote a blistering attack on the president’s strategy in a letter to the House Minority Leader, declaring that Truman’s refusal to expand the war into China imposed “an enormous handicap, without precedent in military history.” When MacArthur then publicly threatened Beijing with “imminent military collapse,” Truman finally had enough and relieved the general of his military command. “I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch – although he was,” Truman later explained. “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president.”

The Obama-McChrystal incident does not rise to the level of the Truman-MacArthur feud. Indeed, the President commended General McChrystal for his past service and emphasized that theirs was not a policy disagreement. But Obama believed that McChrystal’s actions constituted a serious enough breach of respect for the Office of the President and the entire civilian leadership that it warranted his dismissal.

Overlooked in the McChrystal affair, however, is not the general’s contemptuous and public disrespect of civilian command; it is, instead, the questionable strategy being employed in Afghanistan – counterinsurgency – a policy endorsed by the President and McChrystal’s successor, General David Petraeus. Counterinsurgency calls for sending large numbers of ground troops to both sniff out and destroy the enemy, while also living among the civilian population and slowly rebuilding the nation’s government. Even its staunchest advocates admit that this is a process that will require years, if not decades, to achieve. It demands of the U.S. military not that it defend a nation, but that it build one. It requires our armed forces to handle not only the military and security side of warfare, of which they are very good, but also the diplomatic and political side of governance, of which they are neither equipped nor particularly skilled.

Vice President Biden has contended, correctly I believe, that a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan will plunge the United States into a military quagmire without weakening the international terrorist network, which is presently more extensive in places like Yemen. The question becomes, therefore, not who is in charge, but what is America’s endgame in Afghanistan? And how do we measure progress?

The military conflict in Afghanistan has been officially declared the longest war in American history. While this is true only if one measures the Vietnam War from the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964, our involvement in Afghanistan extends longer than World War II and the Korean War combined. Afghanistan is not the deadliest of American conflicts, but the costs have nonetheless been substantial, costing the lives of over 1,000 American servicemen and women, tens of thousands of Afghan civilians, and hundreds of billions of dollars from the public treasury. Yet we risk having in the end achieved very little from when we first invaded Afghanistan. According to recent reports in the British press, prior to his dismissal, General McChrystal acknowledged that progress over the next six months is unlikely and that serious concerns continue to exist over the levels of security, violence, and corruption of the Afghan administration.

The problem with the McChrystal incident, then, is not so much about a disrespectful general as it is a failed policy with little chance of success. The president’s critics are likely correct that setting a firm deadline for withdrawal is counter-productive to our stated mission. But I do not believe for a minute that we will be ending our occupation of Afghanistan any time soon, even if some troops start to come home in July 2011. Nine years into the conflict, it remains difficult to detect much improvement to American security. For every innocent civilian we kill through collateral damage, mistake, or an errant missile (even as precise and careful as our military professionals try to be), the seeds of further terrorism are planted.

If victory has not been achieved after nine years, I fail to see how we can ever accomplish it under current strategy. Terrorist cells continue to exist around the world; al-Qaeda leaders continue to hide in the mountainous terrains of northwestern Pakistan, a country that we do not fully trust and that is, at best, lukewarm to our efforts in the region. We have diverted badly needed funds to a failed military effort that could otherwise help educate our children, create jobs, rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, promote a green economy, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. As I have said before on these pages, we could do so much more to enhance the security of the United States if we instead focused our efforts on building schools for Afghan children. The long-term solution to terrorism and militant fundamentalism in general, and Afghanistan in particular, is education and economic opportunity. A policy that relies upon long-term military power to bolster a corrupt government is destined to fail.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Man From Jersey City

When a man has done his best, has given his all, and in the process supplied the needs of his family and his society, that man has made a habit of succeeding.-Mack R. Douglas
My father was born in Jersey City in 1929, three months before the stock market crashed. “Dad was born and the world went into a Great Depression,” I have often quipped. Twenty years earlier, his father, alone and only nineteen years old, left Denmark for the United States in search of work and economic security. My grandfather spoke no English when he arrived on the shores of Ellis Island, but through perseverance and the will to succeed, he found work as a carpenter, formed a family and created an American life. A quiet, kind-hearted man, with gentle mannerisms that contradicted his strong, calloused hands, I know little else about my grandfather. He died before I was born and my father has never told me much about him; his father rarely discussed his European roots and early struggles with his youngest son, which may explain why I have never possessed a strong ethnic identity even though that part of me is a second-generation American.

It was from my father, however, that I developed an interest in history – listening to his stories of growing up in a Jersey City row house during the Depression; of playing stick ball in the street and rooting for the New York Giants when they played in the Polo Grounds; of working at a pencil factory in the 1940’s when his two older brothers went off to war, one never to return. “You remind me of your Uncle Ted,” he has told me on occasion, with a sad look in his eyes, pained by thoughts of what might have been. “Everybody loved and respected Ted,” my mother would add.

My father was the first in his family to attend college, and it was a scary moment when the skinny 17 year-old kid from Lincoln High School first boarded a train for a southern Ohio town, having never ventured further than New York City. Arriving at Wittenberg University in 1947, its lush, green lawns and tree-filled campus amidst stone buildings and walkways, it was unlike anything from his prior citified existence. Over the next few years, he befriended returning vets studying under the GI Bill and divided his time between studies, part-time work, and fraternity life. In what may have been his most impressive move, at Wittenberg he met and proposed to my mom. It was my dad’s good fortune to have married up, much to the chagrin of his future father-in-law. A life-long love affair secured, he went on to three years of seminary education and, in 1953, became an ordained Lutheran minister, his professional calling.

The ministry was an odd mixture of success and disappointment for my father. He faithfully served four congregations in New Jersey, New England, and Virginia. He preached to and counseled professors and students, farmers and business executives, millworkers and janitors, Congressmen and even a Supreme Court justice, treating each as equal members of God’s family. He was elected Bishop of the New Jersey Lutheran Synod in the early 1970’s, a volatile time in our nation’s history and in church-state relations, when the Church was embroiled in issues of racism and civil rights, gender equality, war and peace, the sexual revolution, drugs and poverty – the same issues then enveloping the country. He helped young men conscientiously opposed to the Vietnam War develop alternative service options. He helped pastors struggling with personal and family problems, and mentored seminary students and young ministers who privately doubted their chosen paths. He confronted and overcame challenges posed by the growing alienation of our youth, rising divorce rates, changing social mores, growing secularism and a heightened skepticism of all things religious. He fought against the rising tide of Christian fundamentalism, a battle he continues to fight today in the Bible-Belt South. And he encouraged congregational leaders and choir directors to experiment with liturgy, music and worship styles to ensure that the Church remained relevant and connected to modern humanity.

Despite reaching the top of his chosen profession, I have always detected a sense of frustration deep within him; that somehow his labors were not fully appreciated and that, especially in retirement, his talents were not fully utilized. “The ministry is a very misunderstood profession,” he warned my brother when Steve first considered following my father’s example. “No one appreciates how much work and effort is involved. Most people think you work one day a week. People rarely praise you and they can be very critical.” For my dad and many of his contemporaries, the desire to preach prophetically and to act boldly in the face of social and economic injustice was under constant attack by existing power structures from within and outside of the Church.

When I was younger, my friends found it hard to believe my dad was a minister. Possessed of a lively sense of humor, his language occasionally reflected his Jersey City roots; it was . . . shall we say . . . salty, a bit impure, with an emphasis on his secular side. A sea of calm during times of crises and periods of great stress, he possessed an explosive temper that erupted only over trivial matters, such as when he misplaced his keys or broke his shoestring. Now in his twilight years, he has mellowed some, his body tired, his soul more contemplative. (“Oh, I don’t know about that,” I can hear my mom saying right now.)

But anyone familiar with my dad also knows of his enormous sense of compassion, empathy, and profound understanding for the sufferers among us, for those who are sick, or poor, or have lost a loved one. He is a great listener, a trait that has served him well in counseling and comforting people in need. Like my mom, he is compelled to serve. Even in retirement, a status he embraced only reluctantly, Dad was the president of the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity and, subsequently, president of Mainstay, a shelter for battered women in western North Carolina. He served as the interim pastor of three different congregations and, with my mom, continues to volunteer each week at the local soup kitchen.

I often wonder why he sometimes doubted his decision six decades ago to enter the ministry. Had he gone into business or banking, he likely would have become CEO and made a lot of money; had he become a teacher, he would have risen to principal or school superintendent. I believe he could have done most anything he wanted, given his straightforward determination and hard-driven work ethic developed in his formative Depression-ridden years.

A city boy who grew to despise cities, Dad chose to retire with Mom and their dog in a small country town in rural North Carolina, away from the congestion of metropolitan living. The son of an immigrant with little interest in his family’s heritage, he extends sincere interest to the backgrounds and stories of others. A man who has committed his entire life to the Church and to serving others, he refuses to let others serve him, and he becomes frustrated with the Church’s unresponsiveness to social ills and injustice. A tendency to focus on the negative, always moving in the opposite direction of his roots, my father is at times an enigma. He has been vaguely discontented with his life’s accomplishments, never realizing how much the people whose lives he has touched along the way respected and admired him.

But of all my dad’s career and life accomplishments, his most lasting legacy is the love and support he provided, along with my mom, to his three children. No matter how busy he was, regardless of his many late night meetings, he always made the time to join us for dinner and to ask about our days. He went out of his way to watch my brother and I play in our countless baseball and basketball games and other sporting events, which seemed to consume 365 days a year through high school. Along the way, he prodded but never pushed, nudging us in directions he thought we should go. Although I did not always appreciate it then, upon reflection I know now that my dad possesses a level of judgment and wisdom exceeding most mortal souls, gained from years of insight into the mistakes and milestones of the many families he has counseled and consoled along the way. He gave each of his three children the freedom to choose our own paths, to make our own mistakes, secure in the knowledge that, whatever we did, however we succeeded or failed along the way, we could always come home to the embrace of unconditional love. As award winning photographer Anne Geddes once said, “Any man can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad.”

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart: An Imaginary Commencement Address

I have never been asked to deliver a commencement address, an honor typically reserved to those who have achieved great public acclaim. But if ever I was asked, I probably would say something like this:

Congratulations to the Class of 2010. You are young and beautiful and full of life. You may not think so, but trust me, when you look back at your photographs thirty years from now, you will look in amazement at how young and truly beautiful you are. My heart goes out to you.

I sat in your place 29 years ago, pressed between 500 graduates, each of us uncertain of our future and unaware of our destiny, during an uninspired time in our nation’s history. The generation before had bequeathed us Vietnam and race riots, the dethronement of Camelot and the murder of a King, Kent State and Watergate, gas lines and oil embargoes, the Iranian Hostage Crisis and Three Mile Island. Ronald Reagan was our new president, elected on an anti-government platform that devalued public service. Consistent with the day’s prevailing sentiments, I chose practicality over passion, with business school in my immediate future. After accepting my degree, I departed the commencement stage unmindful of the tortuous paths my life would soon take.

Much has happened since that warm June day in 1981. However grateful I am for the joys and opportunities life has bestowed, I remain, in some ways, the same insecure student unsure of his direction in life, as apprehensive today as when I hugged my classmates goodbye. It is too soon for history to judge my generation, to know if we have built lasting legacies and positively contributed to future generations. For me, the final chapter has yet to be written. I envy that you begin today with fresh chalk and a clean slate, an unwritten tablet upon which to carve your story. The future is yours.

Any advice I divulge should be taken lightly, for in the words of the great philosopher Groucho Marx, “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” So to America’s future I present here a few slivers of wisdom collected through the years, offered with a strong dose of humility and a hint of hopefulness:

Eat bananas. This may be the best advice I will ever give you. Bananas are high in potassium and good for your heart and nerves, kidneys and bones; a great source of vitamin B6, bananas are good for your blood; and they are a great source of dietary fiber. So, if you remember nothing else, listen to me about the bananas.

Follow your heart. Your time here is limited. Don’t waste it trying to live someone else’s life, or someone else’s dream. Don’t let the noise of other people’s thinking drown out your own inner voice.

Be at peace with your own mortality. Embrace it. Death is the only certainty in life, a destiny we all share. No one, not kings or noblemen, presidents or sports stars, has ever escaped it. Trust me on this, even more than on the bananas. Life is short and moves quickly. Maintaining an awareness of your mortality can help with the big choices in life. Steve Jobs, who a few years back confronted and overcame cancer, wisely noted during a real commencement address at Stanford University in 2005: “Everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way . . . to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Follow your heart, but don’t completely ignore your head.
Pursue your dreams, but fulfill your obligations. Understand the importance of real income, but do not devalue your psychic income – the level of satisfaction derived from a job. Many of life’s decisions are dictated by money – how much you have, how much you need, how much you owe. Money is, for most of us, a major influence in our choice of careers, where we live, and the number of children we have. I cannot tell you that money does not matter. It does. But look around and you will see that some of the happiest people in the world are teachers and public servants, artists and musicians, journalists and directors of non-profits, aid workers and clergy, people who forsake more lucrative careers for the sake of a satisfying life. Some of the most frustrated, unhappy souls are those who pursue careers for money and status and nothing more. Between European vacations and rounds of golf are dysfunctional lives torn asunder by the devastating knowledge of a life wasted.

This is not always the case, of course. Some people are very content with money. As Russian born actress and singer Sophie Tucker once said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, honey, rich is better!” Money provides freedom and security. It provides for your family. Absent a revolution – and I don’t like your odds if you’re contemplating one – it is a necessary component of our social structure. But how much you need or want is determined by your values. Don’t be fooled into thinking it has anything to do with one's self worth or the worth of other human beings.

Never stop learning. You need not be in school to achieve a Master’s Degree in life. Expand your mind and push your limits. Turn off the television and pick up a book; write a poem; visit a museum; attend a play. Understand and use technology, but don’t lose touch with the traditional tools of learning – reading, writing, travel, study, and reflection. One of my favorite scenes in Dead Poets Society is when Robin Williams lectures his disinterested students on the importance of poetry:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. . . . That you are here - that life exists . . . that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play “goes on” and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

Be skeptical, not cynical. Ask questions. Be cautious of smooth talking salesmen and slick politicians. Avoid gullibility, but don’t assume that you always have the answers. You don’t.

Oppose smugness. To those of you blessed with good health, good looks, and good families, understand that this has as much to do with luck as with anything you ever did or will ever do. To those soon to be blessed with happy marriages, understand that others struggle with relationships. To those soon to be blessed with healthy children and seemingly safe lives, know that others will not be so lucky. Do not take your blessings for granted. Show concern to those for whom life has not been so kind; recognize that we all are a mere phone call away from walking in their shoes.

Don’t feel too guilty about everything. What we used to think of as vices – wine, coffee, and chocolate – turn out to be good for you.

Call your parents. Stay connected to the people you love. Stay in touch with your closest friends. When times get rough, when you falter and make mistakes – and you will – the unconditional love of a parent and the support of a true friend are among the few constants on which you can count. And if you are fortunate enough to have children of your own, you will come to truly understand what I just said.

Choose your role models carefully. Don’t be impressed with celebrity. Seek conversations and ideas, not autographs. A person’s value is defined by character, which has more to do with sincerity and the ability to love, listen, and learn from others, than with society’s attributions of glitz and glamour.

Don’t be afraid of uncertainty. Some of the most creative and intelligent people I know still aren't sure what they really want to do with their lives. What may be important to you today will undoubtedly change when you are older. No one has all the answers, and most who think they do are full of shit.

Keep laughing. It is good for the soul. Laughter is life’s best medicine, almost as good for you as bananas.

Show kindness. It is a sign of strength. Except for presidents, dictators, and Philadelphia sports fans, no one was ever criticized for showing compassion and reaching out to someone in need. The world needs more of this, not less. Never lose sight of our shared humanity. We are all in this thing together. It is not as easy for some as for others. Sometimes really bad stuff happens that throws the universe out of whack. Life is unfair, but it need not be unkind.

Stay engaged. Life is not for spectators. Mix it up a little and live in the arena. There is a small plaque on my mother’s kitchen wall that probably cost her fifty cents at a flea market, but which possesses great wisdom. It is a simply knitted picture of a sailboat floating at sea. The caption says, “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” Or as Babe Ruth once said, “Don’t let the fear of striking out hold you back.” Simple, corny words, but ones that deserve to be quoted on occasion, for only wise souls know when to apply them.

Strive to be happy. But understand that happiness is a journey, not a destination. If you can bring passion, joy, and optimism to your life, you will succeed. But understand that success is not how much money you make in life, or how many gadgets you acquire and cars you drive, or how many high-powered friends you accumulate. Success is being missed when you are no longer here and leaving something of value behind. If you touch the lives of others, if you make the world a better place, even a little; if you inspire a young child or make a difference in someone’s life, then you will have succeeded.

“Go placidly among the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.” There is a plaque on Old St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore that contains the words of the oft-quoted poem, “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann, a famous and beautiful writing, the words to which I never tire of reading. It ends thus:

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.

But don’t forget the bananas.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Lesson in Grace, Forgiveness, and the Imperfections of Man

The true perfection of man lies not in what man has, but in what man is.
--Oscar Wilde

It is part of the human condition to strive for perfection. We all seek it. We all fall short. In most aspects of life, to achieve perfection is impossible. In baseball, it has occurred 20 times, at least according to the record books. But for anyone who watched the end of last Wednesday night’s game involving the Detroit Tigers and the Cleveland Indians, perfection has happened 21 times. Armando Galaragga, an otherwise mediocre starting pitcher for the Tigers, pitched what amounted to a 28-out perfect game. In that there are only 27 outs in a nine inning game, this was no easy feat. But in the permanent archives of baseball history, Galaragga pitched a 1-hit shutout. Impressive, but not perfect.

James Joyce, the famous author, once wrote, “A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.” Jim Joyce, the first-base umpire who blew the call that should have been the 27th and final out in the ninth inning, recognized his namesake’s wisdom the hard way. Joyce (the umpire) ruled that Jason Donald of the Indians beat out a ground ball that had been hit between the first and second baseman. The replay clearly showed that Donald was out – by nearly two feet – after Tigers’ first baseman Miguel Cabrera fielded the ball and threw to Galarraga covering first. Galarraga and Cabrera clenched their fists and smiled at each other, about to celebrate Galarraga’s feat as the 21st pitcher in baseball history to throw a perfect game – 27 up and 27 down, no hits, no walks, no errors – when suddenly they realized that Joyce called the runner safe. “Why is he safe?” asked Rod Allen, a Detroit television announcer. Then the replays, in slow motion from several different angles, made certain what everyone thought had been obvious to the naked eye – the umpire got it wrong. Donald was clearly out. Galarraga had indeed pitched a perfect game, but the umpire, the other James Joyce, flubbed it. “Jim Joyce – no,” Allen said in a tone of astonished disappointment.

On watching the replays, my first reaction was anger. How could the umpire have made such a terrible mistake? This was an error of historic proportions. But then the camera focused on Joyce, who stood alone, stoic and emotionless, the most unpopular man in the world at that given moment. The home faithful at Comerica Park in Detroit were not pleased with this man in black, who appeared to represent in human form all of the Satanic forces of the universe. Joyce may have been the only person in that stadium, at that moment, unaware of what the replays showed, though you can be certain he was replaying it in his mind over-and-over, convincing himself he had made the right call, hoping for vindication. I suddenly felt sorrow and pity for Joyce, who I knew would soon be the subject of ridicule and hate-filled diatribes, as the lynch mob mentality of angry sports fans, combined with the media-induced dissections of his every move would dominate the airwaves for the next 24 hours. He made a mistake, a costly mistake in the confines of a potentially historic baseball game, but he had not done so intentionally. He had tried to make the right call, courageously ruling the runner safe knowing that his call would end Galarraga’s strive for perfection.

Immediately following the game, before Joyce had a chance to leave the field, angry members of the Detroit Tigers, led by manager Jim Leyland, all of whom by now had seen the replay, confronted Joyce and lit into him. Joyce stood there, stone faced and silent, as he listened to the manager and several players vent their frustration. Joyce took the abuse gracefully, offering nothing in response. One player absent from this confrontation was Armando Galarraga, who offered not one critical word about the seeming unfairness of it all.

After the game, when Joyce had an opportunity to see the replays, he was emotionally distraught and visibly upset. “I just missed the damn call,” he said. “This isn’t ‘a’ call. This is a history call. And I kicked the [expletive] out of it.” Joyce is a veteran umpire with a stellar reputation, one of the best in the business. 99% of the time, he and most other major league umpires get the calls right. But to error is human, and umpiring, like baseball, is a human endeavor. Mistakes are made all the time in life. A person’s character is defined, however, not by the mistakes we make, but by what we do after making them. When told afterward that Joyce felt terrible about the missed call, Galarraga said that he wanted to tell Joyce not to worry about it, that people make mistakes. Joyce, for his part, sought out Galarraga after the game in the Tigers’ clubhouse and apologized.

“I take pride in this job, and I took a perfect game away from that kid over there who worked his ass off all night.” He did not blame the Tigers for being upset at him after the game. “If I had been Galarraga,” Joyce said, “I would have been the first one standing there [screaming]. I would have said something immediately. He didn’t say a word, not one word.” No one felt worse about his mistake than Joyce himself. Galarraga was impressed with Joyce’s humility and sense of integrity. “I give a lot of credit to that guy,” the Venezuelan pitcher said in broken English. “In my heart, I have no problem with him.” He noted the rarity of an umpire apologizing to a player for a blown call after a game. “Nobody’s perfect,” Galarraga said, as he pardoned Joyce of his sin.

Perhaps it was the obvious pain that Joyce displayed for his own mistake after the game Wednesday night, and the knowledge that Joyce’s career will be forever marred by his unforgivable call, which permitted Galarraga, the Tigers and their fans, to offer remission. Joyce was the scheduled home plate umpire the next day, when the Tigers and Indians had a day game. Jim Leyland, in an act of grace and mercy, sent Galarraga to home plate before the game to hand the official lineup card to Joyce. The two men stood together and shook hands. Tiger fans stood and cheered, offering their own form of compassion and forgiveness. Joyce was overcome with emotion; his eyes swelled, he put his hands to his face and rubbed away his tears. Galarraga patted Joyce on the back, and Joyce returned the gesture. It was a small act of contrition by men not accustomed to such acts of solace and humility.

Many people are predictably calling for baseball to institute a new instant replay rule so that such mistakes are prevented in the future. Why should the umpire be the only person in the stadium who is not allowed to see a replay? Why not get the call right? Maybe it will happen. Maybe it is a good idea. The Cardinals were victims of a blown call in game six of the 1985 World Series that led to their loss in the bottom of the ninth and eventual implosion in game seven. Had there then been an instant replay rule, Don Denkinger, the umpire who blew that call, may have rectified the mistake and prevented an injustice. But then again, there is something charming about baseball’s reliance on human beings to make the right calls; had Galarraga been awarded a perfect game following an instant replay review, it would have been fair and just, but it would have deprived us of the acts of human grace, redemption, and forgiveness displayed after the game and by the Tigers and their fans the next day. Perhaps something greater would have been lost, something larger than baseball and record books.

Bad calls have always been part of the game; umpires are rarely the object of our affections. When one side agrees with a call, the other side usually does not. Fans and players are an impossible lot to please. Baseball is a game of imperfection, full of gaffes and brain cramps, fielding errors, running errors, and mental errors. The players, like the umpires, are human and imperfect. But, as Ross Douthat of the New York Times noted, “baseball is also a game where history matters, and where continuity – those mystic chords of memory, connecting the Tiger fans who watched Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg and Al Kaline and Mickey Lolich to the Tiger fans watching Armando Galarraga last night – matters even more.” We sometimes get carried away with analogies to history and the metaphysical significance of the game’s outcomes, but “baseball’s past is real, those mystic chords are real, and a hundred years and counting of bad calls are part of the sport’s history, part of the legacy of glories and grievances that one generation hands down to the next.”

That umpires are human and infallible, and have always been thus, is one of the charming attributes of the national pastime. Call me old school, but I like that the outcomes of games are sometimes determined by a bad call and not by a video machine. It is not always fair, but then life is not fair, and the lessons learned from baseball’s little injustices are often worth the pain and despair. It is not fair that Galarraga will not get credit for a perfect game. But what happened is far more memorable and extraordinary, something that will be talked about for a long time to come.

Best of all, Joyce’s blunder on Wednesday night brought out the best in those most impacted by its unfairness. And it allowed Joe Posnanski, a nationally acclaimed sportswriter, to pen these words:

Galarraga pitched a perfect game on Wednesday night in Detroit. I’ll always believe that. I think most baseball fans will always believe that. But, more than anything it seems that Galarraga will always believe it. The way he handled himself after the game, well, that was something better than perfection. Dallas Braden’s perfect game [earlier this season] was thrilling. Roy Halladay’s perfect game was art. But Armando Galarraga’s perfect game was a lesson in grace.

And when my young daughters ask, “Why didn’t he get mad and scream about how he was robbed,” I think I will tell them this: I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s because Armando Galarraga understands something that is very hard to understand, something we all struggle with, something I hope you learn as you grow older: In the end, nobody’s perfect. We just do the best we can.