Category Archives: iraq,afghanistan

A Song of Souls Changed by War: The Minstrel Boy

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Absolution of the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg by Father Corby

Friends of Padre Steve’s World. All the things going on in the world, wars, disasters, plane crashes have all have had me a bit melancholy of late. I wonder about all the tragedy, what is going on in Iraq, where so much of my heart is still invested, the situation in Ukraine and the ongoing, seemingly never ending conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, and in the midst of it I am reminded that even today thousands of Americans are still in Afghanistan, pretty much forgotten by most Americans.

So today I have re-done a very old article about a song that means much to me; the Irish song The Minstrel Boy. 

The Minstrel Boy (Thomas Moore)

The minstrel boy to the war is gone, In the ranks of death ye will find him; His father’s sword he hath girded on, And his wild harp slung behind him; “Land of Song!” said the warrior bard, “Tho’ all the world betray thee, One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard, One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell! But the foeman’s chain Could not bring his proud soul under; The harp he lov’d ne’er spoke again, For he tore its chords asunder; And said “No chains shall sully thee, Thou soul of love and bravery! Thy songs were made for the pure and free They shall never sound in slavery!”

The Minstrel Boy will return we pray When we hear the news we all will cheer it, The minstrel boy will return one day, Torn perhaps in body, not in spirit. Then may he play on his harp in peace, In a world such as heaven intended, For all the bitterness of man must cease, And ev’ry battle must be ended.

(Last verse anonymous Civil War)

In February of 2008 I was in the process of returning home from Iraq spending my last couple of days in country before flying out to Kuwait and then the United States. I was already in a rather melancholy state knowing that the Chaplain incoming higher headquarters had turned off my relief for Al Anbar Province after I had paved the way for him with all of the teams of advisors that I had worked with during my time serving them. My relief a personal friend was diverted to the Army advisors with a different Iraqi Division in the north of the country. I felt that the incoming senior chaplain had betrayed and abandoned the men that I worked so hard to care for. Later I heard that he had disregarded my heavily detailed after action reports and told at least one senior chaplain that he “had heard that I was out there but didn’t know if I had done anything.”

It was at that point that I realized that you could do your job and sacrifice yourself to complete a mission only to have someone with their own agenda do what they could to discredit you.  Where the senior Chaplain that I worked for did all that he could to support my team’s mission and see that we were properly recognized at Multi-National Corps Iraq in Baghdad his successor dismissed our work. It was the first time in my Navy career that I had experienced that.  I think it was the fact that I worked for a non-traditional billet working for an Army led joint command outside the normal Navy-Marine Corps chain was a big part of this. Inter-service rivalries and the distain of those bound by conventional thinking are not new and those that have done such non-conventional work have frequently been treated in a similar manner.

Looking back there are some songs which are particularly meaningful to me after my time in Iraq that send a chill up my spine when I hear them. One of these is the patriotic Irish song The Minstrel Boy written by Thomas Moore while a student in honor of friends killed in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.  The song was very popular among soldiers of Irish descent in the American Civil War as well as soldiers fighting in Irish Regiments in World War One and World War Two.

The song is powerful when you hear it for it speaks of the reality of war, war that changes those, even those that return home are not unchanged by it.  It speaks of the sacrifices required by those that go to war and even the effects on the community, the loss of young people.  The final verse added by an anonymous author during the American Civil War in a sense is a prayer, a prayer of return as well as reconciliation. It has been recorded a number of times including an instrumental during the film Blackhawk Down. Another rendition is in the television mini-series Rough Riders about the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry at the Battle of San Juan Hill.

My life has been changed and faith challenged. When I went to Iraq I still maintained a sense of idealism.   After Iraq and having to deal with PTSD and a psychological, spiritual and physical breakdown as well as a profound sense of abandonment by some senior chaplains, my former church and even God I am a different person. My faith which had been shattered to the point of being a practical agnostic for nearly two years has returned. I don’t regret that and do believe that it is a good thing. If we are not changed by what God allows or by what life brings I don’t think that we grow. As a Priest I wonder if I could work in the environment that I work without having gone through what I did.

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I see many of the “minstrel boys” and girls of our era and having also been to war and come back changed the last lines of the final verse is a prayer that I echo. One of the versions that I particularly like is the one sung in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode “The Wounded.” While it is only the first verse it deals with the lives of two officers whose lives are forever changed by war. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJudJ9S579A

This is dedicated to all those who have served, those still serving in harm’s way and all who have gone through the pain of war, until war shall be no more.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Inshallah Iraq (إن شاء الله) Maybe Someday things will be Better

Whenever I read about Iraq I am reminded of how much of my life has been intertwined with that country and people. As I have said on more than one occasion I left my heart in Al Anbar. Back in 2007 and 2008 things were different there. Sunni’s and Shia were at least in the Iraqi military working with Sunni tribesman cooperated with American forces to destroy or drive out the forces of Al Qaida Iraq.

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Now the group that formed out of AQI, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ISIL has driven Iraqi government forces from the area. Because of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s determination to exclude and marginalize he Sunnis of Al Anbar who were so important in stabilizing that region after the departure of U.S. Forces that Maliki pushed for those tribes are not resisting ISIL/ISIS or in some cases allying themselves with that group, if only to drive out Maliki, who they, as well as many Shia Iraqis despise.

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When I was there I traveled the whole province from Fallujah to the border of Syria and Jordan. With our advisors I was treated with great respect and hospitality by officers of the Iraqi Army, Border forces and civilians of all Iraqi religious sects. General Sabah of the 7th Division who hosted me to dinner and met with me a number of times, General Ali of the Habbinyah base who as we shared Chai tea showed me his well worn Arabic-English Bible which he said he loved because it contained things not in the Koran. He told me that he hoped in 5-10 years that I would be able to come to Iraq as his guest. There was the Iraqi operations officer of 2nd Brigade of 7th Division who told me after dinner that he “wished that the Iraqi Army had Christian priests” because they would take care of the soldiers and families no matter what their religion, and the Army company commander at COP South who told me that Iraqis would gladly defend Iraq against the hated Persians if Iran ever attacked. Then there was the first class of female Iraqi Police recruits, who were putting their lives and their family’s safety in danger by volunteering to serve in Ramadi, I was able to spend time with that group of brave women. Of course there were the common soldiers who when they saw me blessing American HUMMVs with Holy Water before a convoy asked me to do the same for them. Then there were the Bedouin who invited us into their tents and homes and treated us to Chia, coffee, dates and other food.

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I did see the Sunni Shia division when a Shia staff officer, the Logistics chief of the 2nd Border Brigade at Al Waleed, and a crony of Maliki was accused of selling coalition fuel to insurgents in Al Anbar. I was with our senior advisor and the new Iraqi brigade commander, a Sunni who had served in the old army who had been sent to rid the brigade of those like the logistics officer fired the man. The meeting was one of the most tense I have ever been in, it was like a meeting with a crime family, where weapons were locked and loaded and fingers on the trigger because even the Iraqi commander did not know who was friend or foe. The disgraced logistics officer on finding out I was a Priest tried to curry my favor during the meeting, quite strange and very scary. I still have nightmares and flashbacks about that meeting.

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You see for me the current conflict is quite personal, I have known too many good and decent Iraqis who in many respects are not that much different than your average American. However they have had to bear the domination of the Persian, the Turk, the British and the Americans. Have a king appointed for them by a foreign power, borders drawn to fit British and French interests, been ruled by the dictator Saddam Hussein who most admit now was better than Maliki because he was an equal opportunity oppressor determined to maintain a unified Iraqi state. They have also endured over thirty years of war or wartime conditions, including a civil war and now a war that has a good chance of destroying any hope of an unified Iraqi state. For them violence, disruption and for many being refugees or exiles has become a way of life.

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The Iraqis that I know were some of the most kind and hospitable people that I have ever met in my travels around the world. I grieve for what is happening to them and their once proud country. The towns, cities and bases that I served at have almost all been taken over by ISIL/ISIS and their allies. Fallujah, Ta’quadum, Habbinyah, Ramadi, Hit, Haditha, Al Rutba, Rawah, Al Qaim, Al Waleed, Al Turbial and so many others. Syrian and Iranian warplanes are attacking Iraqi towns and cities, including places I have spent time.

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When I left Iraq in 2008 I had hopes that the country might survive, as did many of the Iraqis that I met. I hoped one day to go back and travel to the places that I served, and maybe had the opportunity to see the gracious people that I love again. Maybe in 15 or 20 years there might, God willing be an opportunity. I hope and pray that those I know who were so good to me are safe. Until then I can only pray and hope that for them things will one day be better.

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When I think of the Iraq war and its costs I am reminded of the words of Major General Smedley Butler in his book War is a Racket: “What is the cost of war?…this bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

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For the Iraqis and us the cost will be with us for at least a generation. But I do always hope and pray that things will be better.

Inshallah (إن شاء الله)

Padre Steve+

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The Results of Ignoring History: The Implosion of Iraq

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Better Times: With the Bedouin in December 2007

Inshallah, (إن شاء اللهGod willing… or so say my Iraqi friends.

It is now 2014, over eleven years since the Bush administration launched its ill advised, preemptive and probably war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. That war, illegal under any definition of international law which violated most of the components of traditional Just War Theory and condemned by Pope John Paul II was a disaster for the United States and the unfortunate people of Iraq that we are only now beginning to the full negative implications.

For me the past week has been gut-wrenchingly painful as I watched the forces of ISIL/ISIS rampage through Iraq and the demoralized Iraqi military, no longer trusting Prime Minister Maliki throwing down their weapons and running away. I left Iraq over six years years ago. When I left Iraq, I was in Baghdad at the Headquarters of the Iraq Assistance Group, on my way out of country, being awarded a Defense Meritorious Service Medal for my work with our advisors and the Iraqis in Al Anbar. That night was a melancholy night. I was wearing my last serviceable uniform, which I had preserved for the trip home by wearing flight suits and baseball caps with no badges of rank, throughout most of the deployment. Like Lawrence’s donning of the Bedouin robes, my uniform choice, done purely by necessity made me stand out conspicuously among other Americans in country.

I was heading home but didn’t really want to leave, but in the process I left a big part of me in that long suffering country.  I have written much about my experience there and how even today I have a deep regard for the Iraqi people and their hopes for a better future. However, I sense that what Lawrence wrote will be true:

“We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” 

In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq and made short work of that country’s military. That military, defeated in 1991 and crippled by years of sanctions and bombings was no threat to its neighbors and couldn’t even defend itself against the U.S. and coalition forces.

When we entered the country, many Iraqis of all creeds looked upon the US and coalition forces as liberators, but within a few months the illusion was over. Within weeks of the overthrow of Saddam, the US military personnel and leaders who were working with Iraqi officials, both military and civilian to get the country back on its feet were replaced by the Bush administration.

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British Troops enter Baghdad 1919

In their place a new entity, the Coalition Provisional Authority was created and staffed. The first administrator of the entity was retired Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner. He had much experience in Iraq but was sacked quickly by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for not conducting an immediate purge of members of the Baathist Party from key positions in the civil service or security forces, or implementing the agenda of the administration, an agenda that only saw Iraq as a stepping stone for future operations against Iran.

After Garner’s dismissal the CPA was led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, a man who had no experience in the Arab world, much less in Iraq. Bremer and his staff, most of who had little experience or knowledge of the country created conditions that directly led the the Iraq insurgency, the sacrifice of thousands of American and allied lives and the loss of friendship of the Iraqi people. They also gave a a bloodless strategic victory to Iraq’s traditional enemy and oppressor Iran, which became a dominant regional power without having to worry about their traditional Arab nemesis. It is deeply ironic that because of the terrible policy missteps of the Bush administration that the current crisis is forcing Iran and the United States to consider cooperation with one another to prevent the implosion of Iraq.

 

T.E. Lawrence wrote of the British incursion into Turkish Mesopotamia in 1915, managed by the British Indian Office:

“By brute force it marched then into Basra. The enemy troops in Irak were nearly all Arabs in the unenviable predicament of having to fight on behalf of their secular oppressors against a people long envisaged as liberators, but who obstinately refused to play the part.”

The actions of the CPA destroyed the plans pragmatists in the Pentagon and State Department to incorporate the existing civil service, police and military forces in the newly free Iraq.  Instead Bremer dissolved the Iraqi military, police and civil service within days of his arrival. Since the military invasion had been accomplished with minimal forces most Iraqi weapon sites, arsenals and bases were looted once their Iraqi guardians were banished and left their posts. The embryonic insurgency was thus provided by Bremer a full arsenal of weapons to use against American forces; many of whom were now mobilized Reservists and National Guardsmen that were neither trained or equipped to fight an insurgency or in urban areas.

It was as if Bremer, the leaders of the Bush administration and their neoconservative allies knew nothing of history. If they did they decided to ignore its lessons, believing that they were smarter than other occupiers. It was an act of unmitigated hubris and arrogance brought about by those who believed that they were above history. Whether it was ignorance of history, or a wanton disregard for it, it and the country we invaded it was immoral, unethical and probably criminal.

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The reaction of the Iraqi Arabs to US occupation should have been anticipated. Lawrence wrote in 1920 a letter that could have easily been written in 2004:

“It is not astonishing that their patience has broken down after two years. The Government we have set up is English in fashion, and is conducted in the English language. So it has 450 British executive officers running it, and not a single responsible Mesopotamian. In Turkish days 70 per cent of the executive civil service was local. Our 80,000 troops there are occupied in police duties, not in guarding the frontiers. They are holding down the people.”

The actions of Bremer’s incompetent leadership team led to a tragic insurgency that need not have taken place. The now unnumbered US forces had to fight an insurgency while attempting to re-create an army, security forces and civil service from the wreckage created by Bremer’s mistakes; as well as its own often heavy handed tactics in the months following the invasion.

 

Nearly 4500 US troops would die and over 30,000 more wounded in the campaign. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, wounded or died of disease during the war.  Lawrence wrote about the British administration of Iraq words that could well have been written about Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority:

“Meanwhile, our unfortunate troops, Indian and British, under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the willfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Bagdad.”

It took dramatic efforts in blood and treasure to restore the some modicum of security in Iraq, something that was only accomplished when the Sunni tribes of Anbar Province turned against the Al Qaeda backed foreign fighters. The surge under the command of General David Petreus achieved the desired result. It gave the Iraqis a chance to stabilize their government and increase their own security forces, however it can hardly be called a triumph.

Unfortunately many of those that remained in power of the Shia sect refused to share power in meaningful ways with Iraq’s Sunni and Kurds leading to a political crisis. The US military mission ended in December 2011 and since then Iraq security forces and civil authorities, often divided by tribal or sectarian loyalties have struggled to maintain order. The result is that by 2013 that Iraq was again heading toward the abyss of civil war. Most of this has to be laid at the feet of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki who has done everything that he can to break promises made to Sunnis and Kurds, and dishonor the Sunnis who fought to save his government in 2007-2008. Sunni protestors in Anbar and other provinces conducted frequent protests which were met by brute force. Sectarian violence spread, and ISIL/ISIS a move violent and vicious offshoot of Al Qaida gained control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. In the north, Mosul and Tikrit have fallen and there are reports that some ISIL/ISIS fighters entered Baghdad this evening. Casualties in Iraq are continuing to mount and a humanitarian crisis is developing as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis flee the violence, feeling threatened by both the fighters and the Maliki government.

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To the west in Syria a brutal civil war has been going on for three years. Like Iraq it pits Sunni against Shia, as well as Kurd and foreign fighters from a score of nations, some fighting as part of a Free Syria movement, others as part of the Al Qaeda coalition and others beside Syria’s government. Now many of the Iraqi elements of ISIS/ISIL have breached the border with Syria and are attempting to redraw the political map of the Middle East, ravaging the vestiges of the Sykes-Picot agreement.

In 1920 Lawrence wrote of the British intervention and occupation of Iraq:

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

His words have a sadly familiar tone. The US invasion of Iraq did have a different outcome than we imagined, one that is far worse than we bargained for and potentially cataclysmic in its impact.

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That being said, many if not most Arabs in all of these lands simply desire to live in peace and enjoy some amount of freedom for themselves and future for their children. The Iraqis are on the whole decent and honorable people. One has to remember that the freedom for which many are striving, and dying to attain is for them, not for the United States or any other power.

Lawrence’s words and wisdom concerning the Arabs who rebelled against the Turkish Ottoman Empire are as true today as when he wrote them after the war:

“The Arabs rebelled against the Turks during the war not because the Turk Government was notably bad, but because they wanted independence. They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects or French citizens, but to win a show of their own.”

That is the case in Iraq and many other Arab countries today. One can only hope that for Iraq, Syria and those countries as that somehow peace will come. I do hope that we will do better in helping them achieve that than we have over the past dozen years of conflict, or than the British or French did almost 100 years ago.

But all of that being said, this situation is going to take at least a generation to settle. There are no easy answers and certainly sending troops in to restore the situation when Maliki and his regime make no attempt to reconcile with their Sunni and Kurdish countrymen, is not the answer. In fact if there is any answer that maintains Iraq as a unified state it has to be brought about by the Iraqis, particularly Maliki, who has shown no inclination to do this since the United States military left in 2011.

It is also very possible that what is happening, as bloody, horrible and painful as it is may be, is what is needed to correct the blunder of Sykes-Picot. Perhaps it should be left to the Arabs to redraw the natural boundaries of their regions, tribes and religions and let the chips fall where they may. In Iraq, the Sunni Sheikhs once the Shi’ite influence is diminished and they have regained some autonomy will drive out and destroy ISIL/ISIS as they did to AQI in 2007-2008.  The ISIL/ISIS fighters will not be welcome once they have achieved their goals.

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Lawrence wrote in 1920:

What is required is a tearing up of what we have done, and beginning again on advisory lines. It is no good patching with the present system….We are big enough to admit a fault, and turn a new page: and we ought to do it with a hoot of joy, because it will save us a million pounds a week.

We should listen to him.

As my Iraqi friends say Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

 

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Sacrifice, a Broken Heart and No Closure: Thoughts of an Iraq Veteran

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Call em up
Dust em off
Let em shine
The ones who hold onto the ones, they had to leave behind
Those that flew, those that fell,
The ones that had to stay,
Beneath a little wooden cross
Oceans away

Elton John “Oceans Away”

For me and from what I am hearing many veterans like me, the last week has been terribly haunting and filled with anxiety regarding the situation in Iraq. I can when needed detach myself from my emotions and compartmentalize them to attempt to provide good analysis of the situation and place it in its historical, diplomatic, military, cultural and religious context. However, the emotions that I feel for Iraq and what is happening there are strong and I will own my sense of grief, loss and brokenness that I feel right now as the ISIL/ISIS fighters drive through Iraq conquering city after city as the Iraqi Army abandons the field. I wish I could say that things will turn around, but I don’t know if that is possible now. That fact troubles me because I love the Iraqis and left part of me in that country. As I have written before, I left my heart in Al Anbar.

During my tour in Iraq I got to see a part of the country and meet people that the average American never met. I got to know Iraqis because I served with our advisors in country, and I got to know some on detained ships in the Arabian Gulf back in 2002. Most are good people, who have hopes and dreams much like any of us. The vast majority are not extremists and relatively secular, regardless of their religious affiliation in comparison to others in the Middle East. They hope for better for their families, their future and in simple for a normal life after over 30 years in various states of war, with us, the Iranians and with themselves. I worry for them, and pray that by some miracle that they are able to get their families out of the country to safety or be able to get to an area of the country where their safety is assured. For some that may be that may be more possible than others. I worry for them because of the reports of how the ISIL/ISIS forces are wantonly executing officers, soldiers and police officials that they capture alongside the road.

I won’t be doing any real analysis today because this essay is more about my feelings about the situation, and I really don’t want to be mixing those with some kind of analysis. What I can say is that I am grieving for all who have been affected by this cruel war, Iraqis and Americans alike. Far too many people died during and after the ill-advised and most likely illegal invasion of that country by the Bush administration in 2003.

I am the kind of person who wanted to believe the best about the reasons the Bush administration took us to war, but as each of those reasons was proved untrue based on the evidence on the ground it was disappointing. However, I volunteered to serve in Iraq in 2006 and finally went in 2007, with a goal of helping in the effort to restore and reunited the country, something that despite everything I believed was a worthwhile goal. It became apparent while I was over there that for many, especially those managing the massive support contracts to U.S. bases were not there for any noble purpose but for their profits. I saw how KBR/Halliburton subsidiaries engaged in what was for all intents and purposes human trafficking as they exploited third country nationals who did the menial work that supported U.S. and coalition forces. I saw the massive destruction in the country, some caused by the U.S. invasion, and some attributable to the civil war that followed.

I felt betrayed by my leadership and I have a fair amount of anger about this, anger toward the Bush administration, the Congress that shirked its duties and allowed this as well as the war profiteers. But I am also angry at the power mongering Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, whose actions to disenfranchise the Sunnis and others have brought about the current situation, without his idiotic power mania those Sunnis would be fighting against ISIL/ISIS, just as they did against AQI.

Because of this, especially the actions of the war profiteers, I have to agree with Major General Smedley Butler who wrote the classic book War is a Racket and that it is the soldiers that fight the wars and the innocent civilians whose lands, homes and families suffer as a result of it. Butler wrote:

“What is the cost of war? what is the bill? This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

My world has changed. I am not the same person I was that I was when I deployed to Iraq. PTSD, nightmares and terrors and anxiety are still a regular part of my life, as is a certain distance from parts of my life that once were important. When we went to war I didn’t believe that it would end this way. Like Erich Maria Remarque wrote in his classic All Quiet on the Western Front:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

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Last night I attended the Elton John concert in Virginia Beach. He shared a song that he and Bernie Taupin wrote in honor of the members of the Greatest Generation on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. The song, Oceans Away is about their sacrifice, and Sir Elton also paid tribute to those who fought and died in World War One as well as those that serve today. When I listened to the song I wondered if people like me will ever be able to go back to the battlefields that we served on.

Anyway, that is all for today. I have a number of writing projects in the works. The link to the song is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Izma0gpiLBQ

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Iraq 2014: A Disaster Long in the Making

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Map of the ISIL/ISIS Vision

“A Wahabi-like Moslem edition of Bolshevism is possible, and would harm us almost as much in Mesopotamia as in Persia…” T.E. Lawrence, Memorandum to Foreign Office 15 September 1919

As the British and French divided up the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the young Lieutenant Colonel, T.E. Lawrence wrote a warning to the British Foreign Office. He was quite concerned about what was happening and saw the dangers to the region inherent in the British and French division of it. Lawrence understood the religious and ethnic divisions of the region and saw the lack of wisdom in how both the British and French policies, which in order to prop up their gains used those divisions to establish ruling elites in Syria and Iraq, in each case pitting Sunni against Shia, Christian against Moslem and Kurd against Arab.

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Mosul Refugees

In spite of the efforts of the Europeans and later the Americans to prop up strongmen in the region, or in the case of Saddam Hussein, destroy his regime opening a Pandora’s Box of chaos that was only contained by a massive amount of U.S. Military power and an alliance with Iraqi Sunni tribesmen and their sheikhs during the “Anbar Awakening.” The Sunnis expected after they had helped the U.S. and the Iraqi Shia led Central Government to destroy the forces of Al Qaida Iraq, to be brought back into the government and given a reasonable amount of autonomy. Instead, when the U.S. departed in 2011 at the behest of the Shia government those Sunnis became persecuted and alienated. Now many of them are actively aiding, supporting or acquiescing to the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which also known by the name Islamic State of Iraq and the Shaams (ISIS). We forget the lesson that Lawrence learned about the Arabs who fought against the Turks in the First World War: “The Arabs rebelled against the Turks during the war not because the Turk Government was notably bad, but because they wanted independence. They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects or French citizens, but to win a show of their own.” The Iraqi Sunni who allied themselves with the U.S. military in Anabar in 2007 did so for the same reason, they wanted independence.

The American administration of Iraq was even more disastrous than that of the British following the First World War. Lawrence wrote of that occupation in words that could have well described the American efforts in 2003-2006.

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.” T. E. Lawrence, ‘Mesopotamia’ By ex.-Lieut.-Col. T. E. Lawrence (Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford) Sunday Times, 22 August 1920

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ISIL Fighter in Tikrit

Unlike the loosely organized insurgents and militants of AQI and its allies, many of whom were foreign fighters; while there are still good numbers of foreign fighters, most of the ISIS forces are Syrian or Iraqi Sunni, connected by tribe, religion and culture to the land that they are fighting on. These units are well trained, organized as proper military units and have fought both savagely and effectively in Syria and Iraq. Many are led by former professional officers of the old Iraqi Army who when Saddam fell, were thrown out of the military and not even provided for with the smallest of pensions. To demonstrate how close some of these are one only has to read the reports out of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, one of which quoted a tribal leader near Tikrit who said of the ISIL forces: “They came in hundreds to my town and said they are not here for blood or revenge but they seek reforms and to impose justice. They picked a retired general to run the town.”

The ISIL or ISIS fighters are strict Islamists and have been issuing decrees in Mosul regarding what citizens can and can’t do. Women are ordered to be completely veiled and covered if they go outside, which they are told that they should not do. People are being ordered to go to Mosques 5 times a day, sheikhs are being ordered not to cooperate with the government and the only people allowed to be armed are the militants. There are videos of ISIL fighters executing captured government officials.

Many of the Sunni Iraqi Nationalists, professional military officers who returned to the Army following the disastrous performance of it prior to 2007 also expected better treatment for their service. They too were not rewarded and it is possible that the collapse of Iraqi security forces could be in part due to the fact that these men hold grievances against the Baghdad regime of Maliki, which many view as a puppet to Iran, or as they call it “Persia.” Maliki claims that there was a conspiracy in the wholesale collapse of Iraqi forces in the north, and he may be right, but it is a problem that he created and made worse by his divisive policies and politics.

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The ISIL forces, though small are effective and efficient. In a sense they are a throwback, albeit a more hardened and ideological one to the Arabs that Lawrence advised and helped direct as they routed the Turkish Army in the Hajaz, Transjordan and Syria in 1917-1918. Lawrence wrote of that army:

“The Arab army, created in the field, grew from a mob of Bedouins into an organised and well-equipped body of troops. They captured thirty-five thousand Turks, disabled as many more, took a hundred and fifty guns, and a hundred thousand square miles of Ottoman territory.” From T. E. Lawrence, ‘France, Britain, and the Arabs’ by Col. T. E. Lawrence The Observer, 8 August 1920

What happens next I do not know. The ISIL forces have stated that: “Our final destination will be Baghdad; the decisive battle will be there…” I do not know if they have the ability to take and hold it, but they should be able to maintain their gains in Mosul and Tikrit. They have captured large numbers of armored HUMMVs as well as Iraqi military helicopters, including U.S. supplied UH-60 Blackhawk and MH-58 Kiowa at the Mosul airbase. To further complicate the situation the semi-autonomous Kurdish region seized the city of Kirkuk, which it considers its ancestral capitol. Those troops however are reportedly reading for a counter-attack on the ISIL forces absent any presence of regular Iraqi units.

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Kurdish Forces outside Kirkuk

The loss of all of these areas is a disaster to a unified Iraq and shows the incredible short-sightedness of the Bush administration to overthrow Saddam and leave a power vacuum in his place after disbanding the Iraqi military, police and civil service, the only institutions that had kept Iraq together.

If Maliki has any sense he will welcome moderate Iraqi Sunni nationalists back and actually give them the autonomy within Iraq that they were promised while the U.S. was still there, a policy that now Vice President Joseph Biden articulated as early as 2007. A policy that unfortunately was ignored by Maliki as he consolidated power as the U.S. withdrew from Iraq. However, it may be too late for this. The more probable thing that Maliki will do is to rely on Shi’ite militias or even the Iranians to buttress his regime. There are reports that Iranian Al Quds commandos may have been deployed to Iraq, something that may in the vacuum of outside support from other Arab states, the U.S, U.N. Or the international community widen the conflict significantly.
This will likely lead to a bloody stalemate and civil war, similar to what has been happening in Syria, that could last for years throwing the entire region into chaos.

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A Border no More… the berm between Iraq and Syria

ISIL has removed the border between the areas that it controls in Iraq and Syria. They have controlled most of the Euphrates valley in Anbar since last year, and now with the seizure of Mosul and Tikrit are in control of much of the Tigris river valley. Lawrence wrote in his essay The Changing East in 1920 that:

“The cultivated districts, Mesopotamia and Syria, have, however, language, race, and interests in common. Till to-day they have always been too vast to form a single country: they are divided, except for a narrow gangway in the north, by an irredeemable waste of flint and gravel: but petrol makes light of deserts, and space is shrinking to-day, when we travel one hundred miles an hour instead of five. The effect of roads, railways, air-ways and telegraph will be to draw these two provinces together, and teach them how like they are…”

In effect the ISIL forces are creating that Sunni dominated and quite possibly radicalized Wahabi state that Lawrence warned of in 1919. This could well be the end of the duplicitous and disastrous Sykes-Picot agreement which divided the Middle East irrespective of into its current form. Those who implemented that agreement sowed the wind, and now the region and the world are reaping the whirlwind.

It is interesting to recount Lawrence’s observations of the Arab peoples in the Changing East essay published in 1920 which I quoted above. Lawrence wrote:

“The fate of the Arabs is more difficult to prophesy… they have been a government twenty times since the dawn of history, and as often after achievement they have grown tired, and let it fall: but there is no record of any force except success capable of breaking them. The history of their waves of feeling is significant in that the reservoir of all ideas, the birth of all prophecies are shown in the deserts. These empty spaces irresistibly drive their inhabitants to a belief in the oneness and omnipotence of God, by the very contrast of the barrenness of nature, the lack of every distraction and superfluity in life. Arab movements begin in the desert, and usually travel up the shortest way into Syria – for it is remarkable that whereas all prophets go to the desert, yet none of them are ever desert-born. It is the Semitic townsman or villager who receives the revelation. For this reason, for what seemed to be the immemorial finger-sign of history, this present Arab movement, the craving for national independence and self-government, was started in the desert. It, too, took the traditional road to Damascus, the traditional first centre of new movements, and with the successful establishment of Feisal there the second phase was finished. This is not, however, the proper end of the Arab movement: the weight and importance of the Semitic states have always lain in Bagdad, for very sound reasons of economics and population. Syria is a poor country, small and mountainous, dry, lacking in minerals and in arable land. There is no probability that her native population will ever be very dense. Mesopotamia has big rivers, and a huge area of irrigable land. Her wealth in grain and cotton will be very great, and nature may have bestowed on her abundance of cheap fuel. Should that be the case, she will inevitably take the headship of the Arab world in the future, as so often in the past. Damascus may hold an interim pre-eminence: Bagdad must be the ultimate regent, with perhaps five times the population of Syria, and many times its wealth. Mesopotamia will be the master of the Middle East, and the power controlling its destinies will dominate all its neighbours.”

If the politicians, diplomats, businessmen and bankers or the West fail to comprehend this we will never understand or successfully deal with the Arabs of Syria and Mesopotamia. This is not going to get better anytime soon and poses a danger to the region and also the world economy as oil prices are already going up as the oil markets anticipate losing access to Iraq’s oil reserves. In a sense what happens in Iraq will likely make the situation in Syria look like child’s play and will have far more long lasting effects, not only for the region, but the world.

Actions have consequences, and the failure of people, leaders and governments to understand the complex nature of Iraq and Syria have brought the world to a crisis. Barbara Tuchman said it well: “Confronted by menace, or what is perceived as menace, governments will usually attempt to smash it, rarely examine it, understand it, define it.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Closet of Anxieties and Maybe a Good Night Sleep: Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

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Not much to write tonight. I thought of re-posting an older article but I figured instead just a few words.

Last night I didn’t sleep well, and then my older dog Molly woke me up an hour early and remained restless. When I got to work I felt anxious for no real reason as life is pretty good for me. Perhaps the anxiety was the fact that I went to get back in therapy for PTSD and insomnia and the visit, which was an intake visit caused me to have to re-visit a lot of memories from Iraq.

Likewise I think that much of what I am feeling has a direct like to Iraq. Whenever bad things happen there I get upset and anxious. I left so much of myself in that country and I have been even more concerned and even upset about what is going on in Iraq the past few weeks, especially this week.

When I got to work this morning I was replying to a text message and saw my hand trembling. When I am anxious it feels like there is an electrical current running through my body. I find the experience to be distinctly disturbing. I worry so much about Iraq, the Iraqis that I served alongside and get angry about the terrible cost borne by the Iraqi people and the U.S. and coalition forces who fought and sacrificed their after the ill-advised and stupid decision of the Bush Administration to attack Iraq. That administration sowed the wind and now we and the Iraqis are reaping the whirlwind. It is a massive human tragedy and I cannot shake the memories of my time there, likewise I so wish that there was something that I could do to help other than pray. When I think about my time in Iraq I feel much like T.E. Lawrence who wrote:

“We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” 

Today was also a day where I did a lot of counseling with staff members at the college. Those events triggered ideas about doing an article on the experiences of my friends that are Christians but happen to be gay. For those that have never met a gay Christian, or rather don’t think that you know any this might not be something you want to read when I get around to doing it. 

I did the invocation at the 239th Birthday celebration for the U.S. Army at the Staff College. That was kind of cool because I spent the first 17 1/2 years of my military life in the Army before I transferred with a reduction in rank to the Navy in 1999.

This afternoon I got together with my old assistant who kept me safe in many sporty situations in Iraq. He has since retired from the Navy and the visit was awesome.

Tomorrow, Judy and I will be attending the Elton John Concert so I don’t know if I will put anything up tomorrow. If I do it will probably be the re-run that I almost ran tonight.

Since I have an early dental follow up appointment I will sign off for the night, unless something emerges out of my closet of anxieties to interrupt.

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Anyway, have a good night my friends.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

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Thoughts on the Bowe Bergdahl Controversy

bergdahl-300x270Sgt Bowe Bergdahl as a Private First Class

The case of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl troubles me on a number of levels. Over the past few weeks, I like the majority of Americans have been subjected to the incessant media blitz regarding Bergdahl. As someone who has served in combat in very isolated areas of Iraq I have conflicting opinions. One is about his actions that led to him being held captive by the Taliban. The fact is that no matter what the reason he left his base he put himself and his comrades in danger. The second is that we don’t know all the facts and his return is being used by the very people who pressed hardest for it as a political issue. Finally, I am concerned for the safety of Bergdahl and his family which in the course of the mostly right wing media blitz attacks probably are in some kind of danger, especially due to the vehemence that the campaign has been waged.

While I am glad that have him back and that he is safe I am of two minds on what needs to happen.

First Bergdahl needs all the medical and psychological care he can get and once he is deemed fit to question about the incident and his captivity then that needs to happen.

Second a new 15-6 investigation needs to be started by the Army. Should that investigation provide evidence that Bergdahl deserted or collaborated with the enemy or committed treason, Court Martial proceedings should be initiated, beginning with the Article 32 hearing, the equivalent of a Grand Jury determine there is sufficient merit to bring him to trial than a trial should take place and if convicted Bergdahl should be sentenced accordingly. If there is a conviction then if need be the judge and jury should take into account whatever happened to Bergdahl at the hands of the Taliban during sentencing.

Since I have given many sentences during Article 15 hearings as a company commander, assisted in the investigation of criminal cases as a personnel officer, sent soldiers to General Court Martial proceedings and testified for both the prosecution and defense in different court-martial and administrative hearings I do have some sense of justice. I am not blind.

All of that being said, my career military opinion being taken into consideration, the fact is, no matter what has been presented in the media, we don’t know the whole story. Please know I am not defending Bergdahl here, but there is something called due process, which he is not getting in the media, especially the politically motivated vultures at Foc News.

This is unfortunate and is a terrible example of “yellow journalism.” Marcus Luttrell, the “Lone Survivor” of the SEALS says that Bergdahl no matter what the outcome is “branded for life.” Luttrell is no “bleeding heart.” He knows life and death and combat, and he lost friends fighting the Taliban.

The initial 15-6 investigation was never completed because the investigating officer did not have access to Bergdahl. As far of the men from his unit who blame Bergdahl for every death that their unit experienced after his disappearance, that is understandable. It is a reasonable reaction of men who feel that they and their comrades may have been betrayed. It is something that has occurred throughout military history as soldiers seek to find an answer to battlefield misfortune and the loss of friends. One only has to look at the “Lost Cause” in the historical myth of the American South and the Civil War to see that even normal, rational and decent people can assign blame to others for defeat or the loss of friends.

This issue is important for we do know that the unit took casualties after Bergdahl disappeared, but it doesn’t look like any died actually looking for him, in fact some were killed inside their combat outposts. It does not appear that there is a direct connection between Bergdahl’s disappearance and the loss of six other American soldiers. The province where this happned was one of the most hotly contested areas of Afghanistan, when the Taliban, including the Haqqani network poured fighters into the area even before Bergdahl and his unit arrived at their combat outpost. However, that being said, if I lost friends after a soldier disappeared I might want to find a causal link between the situations.

Unfortunately, for years Congress, especially the Republicans castigating Obama now hammered him to do “all he could to secure the release of Bergdahl.” I guarantee that if President Bush, or a President McCain or Romney secured the release with the same process there would be no backlash right now. Any of them would be hailed as heroes who secured the life of an American soldier by the partisans attack President Obama.

As far the “released” Taliban, they in custody in Qatar and you can bet that the CIA is monitoring every breath they take. They were not set free, they are in Qatari custody and the government of Qatar does not want to screw this up. They want to increase their international status and influence outside of the oil markets. However, despite claims the claims of some that these five men are “the worst of the worst” the fact is they only killed Americans after we invaded their country and toppled the government and military that they were a part. Yes, they were bad guys, even potential war criminals when it came to killing Shi’ite Afghans, but they were not Al Qaeda, and President Bush released over 500 like them before he left office.The proper course wold have been to send those of killing their own people to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, and treat those accused of purely military crimes against Americans as Prisoners of War, especially those who were acting in  official capacities in the military of Afghanistan.

Retired Marine Corps General Mattis, and former Commander of the US Central Command said that the exchange of those Taliban for Bergdahl was actually beneficial to the United States forces in Afghanistan. Mattis told the Military Times http://www.militarytimes.com/article/20140609/NEWS/306090040/Mattis-Bergdahl-release-makes-Taliban-vulnerable  that: “We no longer have that concern that they have this pawn they can then play against us,…. So there‘s also a military vulnerability that the Haqqanis now face, that Taliban now faces because they no longer hold one of our U.S. soldiers in captivity. So, there’s also a freedom to operate against them that perhaps we didn’t fully enjoy so long as they held Bowe as a prisoner.” 

Mattis is absolutely right. We no longer have to worry about the Taliban using him for propaganda purposes, or staging a public execution of him to try to embarrass us. Likewise we no longer have to endanger others trying to find him and this gives us room to more forcefully response against them as we depart the country.

As far as Bergdahl’s situation, the Army needs to conduct a new investigation, if it appears that he did desert or collaborate with the enemy he should be put on trial and if found guilty be appropriately punished.

But from my perspective there are a lot of other big questions, including what was going on in his unit in the weeks before he disappeared, which from a leadership perspective are really troubling to me as a military professional. His unit was troubled, it had a bad reputation and some of what are alleged against its members is that some members might have engaged in war crimes against Afghan civilians. I suspect that some of Bergdahl’s accusers could be covering up their own incompetence and possible crimes and using him as a scapegoat, and even if Bergdahl is guilty of what they accuse him of that behavior is inexcusable.

To add to his accusers conundrum is that all of those that have come forward to condemn Bergdahl have done so on behest of Republican political operatives, including former Bush administration staffers. Ironically, one of Bergdahl’s most forceful accusers was discharged from the army with an “Other Than Honorable” discharge. That says something about his potential creditability.

The late Michael Hastings wrote in a 2010 report in the Rolling Stone about that unit. Hastings’ article is insightful because it shows the extent of the problems going one and provides reasons why Bergdahl might have left his post. That article is linked here: http://www.rollingstone.com/…/americas-last-prisoner-of…  Now I do not believe that anything excuses desertion in war, but what if there were other extenuating factors? If his accusers are to be believed, as some say that Bergdahl to be showing indications of mental instability or possible indications that he was about to defect they should have either taken action to get him treatment or to ensure that he could not do so. They did not do this. To me their allegations are factors that good leaders would have noticed and taken precautions to prevent. Believe me, had any competent leader been in charge of that platoon this wouldn’t have happened.

Again none of what I say here excuses desertion or collaboration with the enemy. If Bergdahl did either and is convicted them he should spend as much time in prison as convicted criminal and retired Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North did for his actions of lying to Congress and being involved in a weapons exchange with the government of Iran for the release of American hostages in Lebanon. North wrote of President Reagan’s knowledge of that crime saying: “Ronald Reagan knew of and approved a great deal of what went on with both the Iranian initiative and private efforts on behalf of the contras and he received regular, detailed briefings on both…I have no doubt that he was told about the use of residuals for the Contras, and that he approved it. Enthusiastically.”

Since North has been one of Bergdahl and President Obama’s most viscous attackers, that would be just. But wait… North didn’t spend a day in jail because his conviction was overturned with the help of those “Anti-American Commies” from the ACLU. Mind you this was not because he wasn’t guilty, but because jury members might have been influenced by North’s televised but immunized and highly incriminating testimony before Congress. Another person raising hell is Senator John McCain, who along with the other US POWs in Vietnam was exchanged for Viet Cong and North Vietnamese POWs at the end of that war. Likewise, after his release McCain was accused of aiding the enemy, including some of the same people that now attack Bergdahl.  That too is ironic.

I love the irony and I am disgusted by the actions of those that seek to destroy Bergdahl before the facts are fully known and before he has a chance to defend himself. But then maybe due process of law is only applicable if you are a “conservative” accused of treason and aiding and supporting avowed enemies.

But all this being said, there is much more to know. So before we go destroying the life of an American soldier who was held for 5 years by the Taliban, as well as his family, let us get the facts right and not use them as a political bludgeon against the President for purely political reasons. Please don’t tell me that Obama broke the law because he didn’t give warning to Congress regarding the release into the custody of Qatar of the Taliban prisoners who were exchanged for Bergdahl, that was done in 2012.

All of this troubles me, and it should trouble any person that cares about due process of law and the rights of the accused in court. What has been happening in the media, particularly on Fox News in relation to Bergdahl is nothing short of scandalous and politics at its very worst. The precedent being set is terrible and those “conservatives” that attack Bergdahl and Obama should realize that what they do sets precedent and probably will be used against them and their heroes in the future.

I want justice, including for the men who might have died because Bergdahl went missing. If he actually deserted, committed treason and collaborated with the enemy he needs to be punished. But that has to happen through the process of law and not through character assassination and political posturing in the media.

The proper course right now is to get the facts straight, ensure that Bergdahl gets whatever assistance that he needs to recover, stop the political posturing and seek true justice. If we cannot do that we have disgraced ourselves as a people and as a nation far more than a guilty Bowe Bergdahl ever could.

Of course what I say will make very few happy, but it is a proper response because it weighs the best knowledge of the facts, with the actions of Bergdahl and responsibility for the lives lost. It is something that I believe is important, the qualities of truth, justice and mercy. Unfortunately, that message will probably go unheeded.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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D-Day at 70 Years and Forever: Courage, Sacrifice and Reconciliation…

d-day-opener1Omaha Beach

“We are on this Earth for only a moment in time.  And fewer of us have parents and grandparents to tell us about what the veterans of D-Day did here 70 years ago.  As I was landing on Marine One, I told my staff, I don’t think there’s a time where I miss my grandfather more, where I’d be more happy to have him here, than this day.  So we have to tell their stories for them.  We have to do our best to uphold in our own lives the values that they were prepared to die for.  We have to honor those who carry forward that legacy, recognizing that people cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for it.” President Barack Obama at the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings, June 6th 2014

Seventy years ago the liberation of France began on the beaches of Normandy.  Soldiers from 6 Allied Infantry and 3 Airborne Divisions supported by an Armada of over 5000 ships and landing craft and several thousand aircraft braved weather, heavy seas and in places fierce German resistance to gain the foothold on beaches named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno.  Over the next seven weeks the Allied soldiers advanced yard by yard through the hedgerows and villages of Normandy against ferocious German resistance before they were able to break out of the lodgement area and begin the drive across France.

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The fighting was bloody, most American, British and Canadian infantry battalions and regiments suffered nearly 100% casualty rates in Normandy.  Replacements were fed in at a cyclic rate to make up the losses even as fresh divisions flowed ashore, but the losses were terrible.  By the time the landings took place, the British having been at war for nearly five years were bled out.  They had little left to replace their losses.  From Normandy on the British were losing combat power at a rate that they could not make up.

For the Americans there was another problem.  The US High command decided to limit the Army to 90 Divisions.  Many of these were committed to the Pacific and Mediterranean theaters.   Likewise, American Infantry units were generally made up of the lowest caliber of recruits, led often by the poorest officers, the best went to either the Air Corps or technical branches of the Army.

Now this is not to criticize veterans, but it is a factor in the campaign.  Most US Infantry Divisions with the exceptions of those previously blooded in North Africa and Sicily often performed badly in action.  Some, after being manhandled by the Germans had their leadership replaced and became excellent combat units.  However, every new division that arrived in France after D-Day always got the worst of their initial engagement against German forces.

While performance suffered there was another problem for the Americans.  With the limitation in number of divisions, they stopped building infantry divisions, upon whom the bulk of the campaign depended. Thus they had little in the way of trained infantry replacements to make up heavy losses in Normandy.  By late 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge the American infantry crisis was so bad that 30,000 Air Corps candidates were trained as infantry and soldiers support units such as Ant-Aircraft battalions were used to bolster infantry units.

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Had the Germans been able to hold out and had they not been bled white by the Red Army on the Easter Front, had they not lost the nearly their entire Army Group Center in the Red Army offensive of 1944 it is conceivable that the British and American offensive in the West would have ground to a halt for lank of infantry in 1945.  In spite of this there was no lack of individual courage among the troops engaged; the courage and sacrifice of all who fought there should not be forgotten.

caen_ruins1The Ruins of Caen

The human toll among the combatants both Allied and German, as well as the local populace was especially traumatic.  While the American, Canadian and British people are keen to remember the sacrifices made by our soldiers we often forget the toll among the French civilian population of Normandy as well as the German soldiers, mostly conscripts, sacrificed by the Nazi regime.  Normandy suffered more than any part of France during the liberation.  In the months leading up to D-Day Allied Air Forces unleashed hell on Normandy to attempt to lessen potential German resistance.  The Allied Naval bombardment added to the carnage ashore and once the campaign began the combined fires of both Allied and German forces devastated the region.  Whole cites such as Caen were destroyed by Allied Air forces and an estimated 30,000 French civilians were killed during the Normandy campaign, 3000 on D-Day alone.  I think it can be said that the blood of the civilians of Normandy was shed for the freedom of all of France.

Normandie, Fallschirmjäger mit MG 42

The campaign in Normandy was one of the most viciously contested in western military history.  German forces, especially Paratroops of the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th Fallschirmjager Divisions, German Army Panzer Divisions such as the 2nd, 21st, 116th and Panzer Lehr and those of the Waffen-SS, especially the 1st, 2nd and 12th SS Panzer Divisions held the line against ever increasing Allied forces.  As they sacrificed themselves Hitler refused to commit more forces to Normandy and insisted that his Army contest every meter of ground.  He forbade his commanders to withdraw to more defensible positions along the Seine.

Hitler’s decisions actually shortened the campaign.  Whatever the crimes of the Hitler Regime and Nazism, which were among the most heinous in history, one can never question the valor, courage and sacrifice of ordinary German soldiers.  For those Americans who lump all Germans who fought in World War II with the evil of the Nazi regime, please do not forget this fact:  There are those today, even in this country that make the same charge against Americans who have fought in Iraq and those at home and abroad who have labeled the US as an aggressor nation.  When you judge others, know that the same standard will be applied to you someday. It is as Justice Robert Jackson who served as the Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal wrote:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

Normandy was a near run thing for the Allies.  First the weather almost delayed it by 2 to 4 weeks.  Had that happened the Germans might have been even better prepared to meet the invasion.  Likewise, the Red Army’s devastating offensive which annihilated Army Group Center in June kept the Germans from transferring additional forces from the Russian Front to Normandy.  On D-Day itself there were a number of times where Lady Luck, or maybe the Deity Herself, saved the Allies from disaster.

Any person who has seen Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day or Band of Brothers knows a little bit about how close Overlord came to failure.  Allied Airborne units were dispersed throughout the region after they drooped.  Many units were not fully operational for more than a day as they sought to organize themselves and gather their troops.  At Omaha Beach the Americans had not counted on the presence of the first rate German 352nd Infantry Division.  This division, despite being pounded by naval and air forces almost cause General Bradley to withdraw from Omaha.  At Utah the soldiers of the 4th Infantry division escaped a similar mauling by landing on the wrong beach.  Had they landed at the planned beaches they would have ran into the same kind of resistance from well dug in German forces.  At Gold Juno and Sword British forces benefited from confusion in the German command which kept the 21st Panzer Division from descending on the British forces and quite possibly splitting the British zones.

The Allies benefited from the absence of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B who because of the ad weather assumed no invasion was possible and traveled to German to celebrate his wife’s birthday.  Finally, and perhaps most important they benefited by Hitler’s refusal to immediately commit forces, including his Panzer reserve to defeat the invasion at the beachhead.

For those who fought in Normandy and those civilians who lived through it the memories are still vivid. Many suffer the effects of PTSD, grief and other wounds, physical, emotional and spiritual.  When one is exposed to the danger and destruction of war, the smell of death, the sight of burned out cities, vehicles and the suffering of the wounded and dying, it makes for a lifetime of often painful memories.

For some of the German, British and American veterans, the struggle in Normandy has given way to long lasting friendships.  Many of those who fought against the Allied onslaught became fast friends after the war. Those who fought against each other were soon allies as part of NATO and soldiers of nations which were once bitter enemies serve together in harm’s way in Afghanistan.  The generation that fought at Normandy is rapidly passing away, their numbers ever dwindling they remain a witness to courage, sacrifice and reconciliation.

In the end it is reconciliation and healing that matters. Some scars of war never pass away; some memories are far too painful to release.  Yet we strive to reconcile.  In 2002 while deployed at sea for Operation Enduring Freedom I was an advisor to a boarding team from my ship.  It was our job to make sure that impounded ships which were breaking the UN embargo on Iraq were not in danger of sinking, and that their crews had food, water and medical care.  Since many of these ships remained at anchor for 2-4 weeks in the heat of the Arabian Gulf, this was important.

The delays imposed by UN rules sometimes meant that the sailors of these ships grew resentful.  It was my job to spend time with the Master’s of these ships to keep things calm and work out any issues that arose.  On one of these ships I met an Iraqi merchant skipper.  The man was well traveled, educated in the U.K. in the 1960s and in his career a frequent visitor to the US. In 1990 he was the senior captain of the Kuwaiti shipping line.  Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.  As a result of this when Kuwait was liberated he lost his job.  His nation was an international pariah.  Since his life was the sea he took up the only job possible to support his family, what he knew best, captaining ships.  He was most apologetic for the trouble that he and others like him caused us.  We shared much during those visits.   One of his daughters was in medical school and other children in university.  He longed for the day when Iraq would be free.  On our last talk before his ship was released he remarked to me “I hope one day we will meet again.  Maybe someday like the American, British and German soldiers after the war, we can meet in a pub, share a drink and be friends.” 

dinner-w-bg-sabah1Me with Iraqi General Sabah in his Quarters in Ramadi 2007

I too pray for that, especially after my tour in Al Anbar five years after I encountered that Iraqi Merchant Captain.  Maybe someday we will. I thought of him almost every day that I was in Iraq. I only hope that he and his family have survived the war, the continuing violence in Iraq and are doing well. There is hardly a day that goes by that I do not think of this man or the Iraqis that I had the honor of serving alongside in Al Anbar in 2007 and 2008.

President Obama remarked in Normandy last week about the veterans of the 9-11 Generation of service members, of which I and so many others like me are part:

“And this generation — this 9/11 Generation of service members — they, too, felt something.  They answered some call; they said “I will go.”  They, too, chose to serve a cause that’s greater than self — many even after they knew they’d be sent into harm’s way.  And for more than a decade, they have endured tour after tour.”

God bless all those who fought at Normandy and give your peace to all who have served since then. Be with our troops as they serve in Afghanistan. Heal the wounds of war and bring your peace to the nations. Amen

Peace, Steve+

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Counting the Cost: Reflections on Armed Forces Day 2014

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“What is the cost of war? what is the bill?…“This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….” Major General Smedley Butler USMC

Today is Armed Forces Day and unfortunately most of the country will not notice unless they are attending a Baseball game where it is being observed or some special event on a base, national cemetery, monument or VFW hall.

There are also a fair number of local celebrations to honor members of the Armed Forces across the country but for the most part they are small and not well publicized. As a career officer and son of a Vietnam veteran Navy Chief I appreciate those events and the people that put them together. Being a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, especially those that have taken the time to honor Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

At any given time less than 1% of Americans are serving in all components of the military. For over 10 years we have been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as other locations that we don’t like to talk about too much. However this has not been the effort of a nation at war, it is the war of a tiny percentage of the population.

As a nation we are disconnected from the military and the wars that the military fights. The fact is that most Americans do not have a personal or vested interest in these wars, they have been insulated by political leaders of both parties from them. There is no draft, and no taxes were raised to fund the wars and the military is now worn out.

We have been at war for nearly 14 years and truthfully there is no end in sight. In that time every single Soldier, Sailor, Marine and Airman volunteered for duty or reenlisted during this time period. Motives may have varied from individual to individual, but unlike the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam every single one volunteered to serve in time of war. I think that this makes the current generation of veterans quite unique, we are no longer a military composed of citizen soldiers we are now, even our reserve components a Warrior caste, set apart from the society that we serve.

There is a tragic disconnection between the military and civilian society in the United States. This is the result of deliberate public policy since the end of the Vietnam War supported by both political parties. For almost 40 years we have relied on an all volunteer force. It is that relatively small and socially isolated military which is sent to fight wars while the bulk of the population is uninvolved and corporations, lobbyists and think tanks get rich.

Andrew Bacevich wrote in his new book Breach of Trust: How Americans failed their Soldiers and their Country:

“Rather than offering an antidote to problems, the military system centered on the all-volunteer force bred and exacerbated them. It underwrote recklessness in the formulation of policy and thereby resulted in needless, costly, and ill-managed wars. At home, the perpetuation of this system violated simple standards of fairness and undermined authentic democratic practice. The way a nation wages war—the role allotted to the people in defending the country and the purposes for which it fights—testifies to the actual character of its political system. Designed to serve as an instrument of global interventionism (or imperial policing), America’s professional army has proven to be astonishingly durable, if also astonishingly expensive. Yet when dispatched to Iraq and Afghanistan, it has proven incapable of winning. With victory beyond reach, the ostensible imperatives of U.S. security have consigned the nation’s warrior elite to something akin to perpetual war.”

Bacevich, a retired Army Colonel and Vietnam veteran who lost a son in Iraq is dead on, as is Rachel Maddow who wrote in her outstanding book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power:

“The reason the founders chafed at the idea of an American standing army and vested the power of war making in the cumbersome legislature was not to disadvantage us against future enemies, but to disincline us toward war as a general matter… With citizen-soldiers, with the certainty of a vigorous political debate over the use of a military subject to politicians’ control, the idea was for us to feel it- uncomfortably- every second we were at war. But after a generation or two of shedding the deliberate political encumbrances to war that they left us… war making has become almost an autonomous function of the American state. It never stops.” 

The lobbyists, pundits, politicians and preachers that promote war don’t care about the troops. This is because no matter who is in office or who controls congress these people and corporations will promote policies that keep them employed and their businesses enriched. Marine Major General and Medal of Honor winner Smedley Butler was quite right when he said:

“War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.”

I think that the reason that our current wars have gone on so long is the that misguided policies have brought about a chronic disconnection in our society between those that serve in the military. But how can there not be when in the weeks after 9-11 people like President Bush and others either directly or in a manner of speaking told people to “go shopping” * as we went to war in Afghanistan? When I returned from Iraq I returned to a nation that was not at war whose leaders used the war to buttress their respective political bases.

The results are terrible. Suicide rates are continuing to rise among veterans who have returned to find that neither the VA nor the civilian mental health care sector is prepared to care for them.

I think that Armed Forces Day should be better celebrated and I am grateful to the people that do things every day to thank and support military personnel. These wonderful people that do this come from across the political spectrum. Some are veterans and others non-veterans. But they care for and appreciate the men and women that serve in and fight the wars that no-one else can be bothered to fight.

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Of course the politicians, pundits, preachers and the defense contractors, banks and lobbyists will find a way to profit. They will do so no matter how many more troops are killed, wounded or injured and how badly it affects military personnel or their families and will push to abandon those who fought as they do after every war. After all, to quote Smedley Butler, “war is a racket.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

President Bush’s actually words were “Now, the American people have got to go about their business. We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t — where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop…” http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/10/20011011-7.html

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Moral Injury: The Silent Killer of Veterans

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This morning I woke up and got ready to go to work. My wife was up. She had been up most of the night because unbeknownst to me I had been fighting something in my sleep. Judy tried to wake me up, but I didn’t wake up, and evidently the episode lasted much of the night. I do remember some dreams, or rather nightmares last night dealing with a particular situation that I experienced in Iraq, but such nightmares are so common that unless there is something really unusual about them I really don’t think much about them.

I first heard of Moral Injury in 2009 about a year after I was diagnosed with severe and chronic PTSD. However, that being said as a military historian I have to admit that I have read about it time and time again in less clinical language. What I had more experience with were the memoirs of common soldiers and officers, as well as the experiences of Sailors, Marines and Soldiers who had confided in me at various times as their chaplain.

Marine Major General and two time Medal of Honor recipient Smedley Butler wrote in his book War is a Racket:

“Boys with a normal viewpoint were taken out of the fields and offices and factories and classrooms and put into the ranks. They were remolded; they were made over; they were made to “about face”; to regard murder as the order of the day. They were put shoulder to shoulder and through mass psychology, they were entirely changed. We used them for a couple of years and trained them to think of nothing but killing and being killed.

The suddenly, we discharged them and told them to make another “about face”! This time they had to do their own readjusting, sans mass psychology, sans officers’ aid and advice, sans nation-wide propaganda. We didn’t need them anymore. So we scattered them about without any “three minute” or “Liberty Loan” speeches or parades.”

Last year I was interviewed by David Wood of the Huffington Post for a series of three articles that he just published on moral injury.* If PTSD and TBI are considered “invisible wounds” then moral injury must be included. It is a condition as old as war itself and can be seen even in the most ancient of writings about war, Homer’s Iliad, King David’s grief over the loss of his friend Jonathan and many others.

I came home from Iraq forever changed. I served with Marine and Army advisers to Iraqi Army, Border Troops, Police, Highway Patrol and Port of Entry Police in Al Anbar Province in 2007 and 2008. That assignment, which took me throughout the province brought me into contact with a part of the war that many Americans, even those serving in Iraq were shielded from, a part of the war that was never shown in the media that exposed me to realities that before serving there I was unaware.

They were uncomfortable truths. The tensions between the various Iraqi factions, the real hopes for a better Iraq held by many Iraqis and the absolute devastation that the American invasion of Iraq had brought to that unfortunate country. I saw some of the disrespectful and insulting things done by American troops that had to be dealt with by the advisors, men who were as much diplomats as they were Soldiers and Marines. I saw the damage inflicted by bombing campaigns that had little to do with winning a war, but more with destroying infrastructure that even our own war plans had determined was vital to Iraq’s recovery after the success of our campaign. I saw children wounded in fire fights, as well as ministered to the wounded coming through the Fleet Surgical Facility at Ta’Qaddum on their way elsewhere.

I have spent time with Marines and Soldiers who feel real guilt from the actions that they saw or participated in both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise I have dealt with the grief of men and women, Corpsmen, Doctors and Nurses who wish that they could have done more to save the lives of others or done more to prevent suffering. I have also dealt with those who have attempted suicide after taking part in actions that they could not live with or due to what they saw or experienced in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Unfortunately Moral Injury is not taken seriously by the military. This despite the fact many military physicians, mental health providers and chaplains are on the cutting edge of dealing with it. We are doing research, writing and treating those afflicted the services themselves do not even acknowledge it. Even as we do this some in the military, including Chaplains want to call it something more ambiguous using the Orwellian term “inner conflict” to describe something that is far more damaging and insidious.

I suppose that a big part of the reason is that all of the services do an amazing amount of work to built a set of moral values in those that serve. In the Navy we talk about courage, honor and commitment. We talk about being men and women of principle, doing what is right. Such ideas are a part of who we are, Douglas MacArthur spoke of “Duty, Honor Country” and our military academies have long taught the principle that “I will not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those that do.”

We teach our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen values that are often more rigorous than what they grew up with at home or in school. Then we send them to war and they see and sometimes do things that are at odds with those values as well as the values that we as Americans cherish. We place them in situations where the moral values we teach them contradicted by what we teach and train them to do, and the real unvarnished truth about war, it is hell. Smedley Butler wrote:

“But the soldier pays the biggest part of this bill.
If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit  any of the veterans’ hospitals in the United States….I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”

How we expect anyone to retain their soul and their sanity when we teach them a set of values that we as a nation fail to uphold is beyond me. The fact that the politicians, pundits and preachers who constantly insist on using the under one percent of the population that serves in the military to bear such burdens to satiate their bloodlust and then refuse to recognize their injuries and then deny them care or benefits is abhorrent.

One of the survivors of the famed World War One “Lost Battalion” wrote:

“We just do not have the control we should have. I went through without a visible wound, but have spent many months in hospitals and dollars for medical treatment as a result of those terrible experiences.”

While I was impacted very much by what happened to me and what I saw. The sad thing is that I was far better prepared and seasoned to survive what I experienced than most of my younger counterparts. After years of training and experience I felt that I was immune to PTSD or Moral Injury. Sadly, I was wrong and today, more than six years after I returned from Iraq I deal with the consequences of war, in my life and those of those that I serve.

I don’t pretend to have answers, but I do expect that our country takes responsibility for the injuries and suffering that its policies have created. Specifically I am speaking to that Trinity of Evil, the Politicians, Pundits and Preachers who constantly lobby for war and refuse to take personal responsibility for it when it comes, and who then for matters of political expediency throw aside the volunteers who went to war for far higher ideals and motives than those that sent them.

Okay, it is time for me to take a deep breath. But I do get really spun up about this, because I have lived this reality and I get angry when I see look around and realize that for most people in this country, the plight of veterans doesn’t matter. We are just another “special interest group” to use the words of a member of a committee appointed by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that wants to decimate military benefits. But even now people like Bill Kristol who have never served a day in the military and never seen a war that they didn’t like, urge that we send more men and women to war over Crimea. But I digress…

Moral injury is a silent killer of the soul and it is high time that we recognize just how deadly it is.

Guy Sager, author of the classic The Forgotten Soldier wrote: “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”

I don’t know what nightmares I will have tonight, hopefully at least for Judy’s sake I won’t have any.

With that, I will sign off for the night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Wood’s Articles can be found here: http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/moral-injury/the-grunts
http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/moral-injury/the-recruits
http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/moral-injury/healing

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