Category Archives: middle east

God in the Empty Places, Six Years After Iraq

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Leaving Iraq, January 31st 2008

Six years ago I arrived home from Iraq. It was the beginning of a new phase in my life.  I wrote an article shortly after my return for the church that I belonged to at the time and I have republished it around this time of year a number of times.

When I wrote it I really had no idea how much I had changed and what had happened to me. When I wrote it I was well on my way to a complete emotional and spiritual collapse due to PTSD.  Things are better now but it was a very dark time for several years and occasionally I still have my bad days.

These wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been terribly costly in lives, treasure and they have lost almost all sense of public support. I have been in the military almost all of my adult life, over 32 years. I am also a historian and the son of a Vietnam Veteran. Thus, I feel special kinship with those that have fought in unpopular wars before me. French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam, even the Soviet troops in Afghanistan before we ever went there. 

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I am honored to have served with or known veterans of Vietnam, particularly the Marines that served at the Battle of Hue City, who are remembering the 44th anniversary of the beginning of that battle.  My dad also served in Vietnam at a place called An Loc. He didn’t talk about it much and I can understand having seen war myself. 

When I look up at the moonlit sky I think about seeing all of those stars and the brilliance of the moon over the western desert of Iraq near Syria. Somehow, when I see that brilliant sight it comforts me instead of frightens me. 

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Tonight our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen serve in harm’s way nearly 35,000 in Afghanistan alone. We are sort of out of Iraq but Lord knows how things will turn out in the long run, and it appears that another major Battle of Fallujah is shaping up.  

Tonight I am thinking about them, as well as those men who fought in other unpopular wars which their nation’s government’s sent them. 

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When I left Iraq I was traumatized. All that I had read about our Vietnam veterans, the French veterans of Indochina and Algeria and the Soviet veterans of Afghanistan resonated in my heart. The words of T. E. Lawrence, Smedley Butler, Erich Maria Remarque and Guy Sager also penetrated the shields I had put around my heart. 

So I wrote, and I wrote, and I still write. But tonight here is God in the empty Places.

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God in the Empty Places. 

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past few months. While both have been part of my life for many years, they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. I can’t really explain it; I guess I am trying to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return.

The Chaplain ministry is unlike civilian ministry in many ways. As Chaplains we never lose the calling of being priests, and as priests in uniform, we are also professional officers and go where our nations send us to serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. There is always a tension, especially when the wars that we are sent to are unpopular at home and seem to drag on without the benefit of a nice clear victory such as VE or VJ Day in World War II or the homecoming after Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

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It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for us to give the credit to the Lord and equally easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God might have been involved. Such is the case in almost every war and Americans since World War Two have loved the technology of war seeing it as a way to easy and “bloodless” victory. In such an environment ministry can take on an almost “cheer-leading” dimension. It is hard to get around it, because it is a heady experience to be on a winning Army in a popular cause. The challenge here is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus, by caring for the least, the lost and the lonely, and in our case, to never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent among the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

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But there are other wars, many like the current conflict less popular and not easily finished. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, guerrilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernible victory. These types of wars can drag on and on, sometimes with no end in sight. Since they are fought by volunteers and professionals, much of the population acts as if there is no war since it does often not affect them, while others oppose the war.

Likewise, there are supporters of war who seem more interested in political points of victory for their particular political party than for the welfare of those that are sent to fight the wars. This has been the case in about every war fought by the US since World War II. It is not a new phenomenon. Only the cast members have changed.

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This is not only the case with the United States. I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indochina, placed in a difficult situation by their government and alienated from their own people. In particular I think of the Chaplains, all Catholic priests save one Protestant, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the epic defeat of the French forces that sealed the end of their rule in Vietnam. The Chaplains there went in with the Legion and Paras. They endured all that their soldiers went through while ministering the Sacraments and helping to alleviate the suffering of the wounded and dying. Their service is mentioned in nearly every account of the battle. During the campaign which lasted 6 months from November 1953 to May 1954 these men observed most of the major feasts from Advent through the first few weeks of Easter with their soldiers in what one author called “Hell in a Very Small Place.”

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Another author describes Easter 1954: “In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

Of course one can find examples in American military history such as Bataan, Corregidor, and certain battles of the Korean War to understand that our ministry can bear fruit even in tragic defeat. At Khe Sahn in our Vietnam War we almost experienced a defeat on the order of Dien Bien Phu. It was the tenacity of the Marines and tremendous air-support that kept our forces from being overrun.

You probably wonder where I am going with this. I wonder a little bit too. But here is where I think I am going. It is the most difficult of times; especially when units we are with take casualties and our troops’ sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.

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For the French the events and sacrifices of their soldiers during Easter 1954 was page five news in a nation that was more focused on the coming summer. This is very similar to our circumstances today because it often seems that own people are more concerned about economic considerations and the latest in entertainment news than what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan.

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The French soldiers in Indochina were professionals and volunteers, much like our own troops today. Their institutional culture and experience of war was not truly appreciated by their own people, or by their government which sent them into a war against an opponent that would sacrifice anything and take as many years as needed to secure their aim, while their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifice and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. Their sacrifice would be lost on their own people and their experience ignored by the United States when we sent major combat formations to Vietnam in the 1960s.

In a way the French professional soldiers of that era, as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our current all volunteer force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of them were citizen soldiers who did their service in an epic war and then went home to build a better country as civilians. We are now a professional military and that makes our service a bit different than those who went before us.

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Yet it is in this very world that we minister, a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals. We go where we are sent, even when it is unpopular. It is here that we make our mark; it is here that we serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Our duty is to bring God’s grace, mercy and reconciliation to men and women, and their families who may not see it anywhere else. Likewise we are always to be a prophetic voice within the ranks.

When my dad was serving in Vietnam in 1972 I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that he was a “Baby Killer.” It was a Catholic Priest and Navy Chaplain who showed me and my family the love of God when others didn’t. In the current election year anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops. Our duty is to be there as priests, not be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because most churches, even those supportive of our people really don’t understand the nature of our service or the culture that we represent. We live in a culture where the military professional is in a distinct minority group upholding values of honor, courage, sacrifice and duty which are foreign to most Americans. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dienbeinphu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

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There is a picture that has become quite meaningful to me called the Madonna of Stalingrad. It was drawn by a German chaplain-physician named Kurt Reuber at Stalingrad at Christmas 1942 during that siege. He drew it for the wounded in his field aid station, for most of whom it would be their last Christmas. The priest would die in Soviet captivity and the picture was given to one of the last officers to be evacuated from the doomed garrison. It was drawn on the back of a Soviet map and now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin where it is displayed with the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation. I have had it with me since before I went to Iraq. The words around it say: “Christmas in the Cauldron 1942, Fortress Stalingrad, Light, Life, Love.” I am always touched by it, and it is symbolic of God’s care even in the midst of the worst of war’s suffering and tragedy. I have kept a a copy hanging over my desk in my office since late 2008. It still hangs in my new office.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Night of Memories: Syria, Iraq and The Middle East in 2014, Echoes of T. E. Lawrence

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Inshallah, (إن شاء اللهGod willing…

It is now 2014, almost eleven years since the Bush administration launched its ill advised, preemptive and probably war illegal under international law, against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Tonight instead of watching the State of the Union Address, and the four separate Republican responses, or a sporting event, or some thing more frivolous I am watching Lawrence of Arabia.  

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It is fitting that I do so. I left Iraq just six years ago. In fact six years ago tonight 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. It was a melancholy night. That 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.

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I was heading home but didn’t really want to leave, but in the process I left 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 wonder if 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.” 

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In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq and made short work of that country’s military. 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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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.

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 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 it. Whether it was ignorance of history, or a wanton disregard for it, and the country we invaded it was immoral, unethical and probably criminal.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. Sunni protestors in Anbar and other provinces conducted frequent protests, sectarian violence spread, and an Al Qaeda affiliated group gained control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. Casualties in Iraq are continuing to mount.

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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.

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.”

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His words have a sadly familiar tone. The US invasion of Iraq did have a different outcome than we imagined. The Arab Spring erupted and the consequences of it will be far reaching and effect much of the Middle East and the world. The internal conflicts in Iraq and Syria threaten every country that borders them, and the instability has the potential of bringing on an regional war.

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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. One has to remember that the freedom for which many are striving, and dying 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 many Arab countries today. One can only hope that in those countries as well as in Afghanistan where our troops are embroiled in a war that cannot end well, that somehow peace will come. I do hope that we will do better than we have over the past dozen years of conflict, or than the British or French did almost 100 years ago.

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Thoughts on the Iranian “Deal”

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Yesterday negotiators from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China finished hammering out a tentative deal with Iran regarding that nation’s nuclear program.

There are a lot of opinions about the deal, some positive, some definitely negative and quite a few like mine a wait and see attitude. Now I am hopeful that the deal is a positive first step in assuring that Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. In fact I pray that it does.

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The fact is that we have to try, even if some allies for their own reasons disagree. The Israelis are understandably concerned, especially since the last President of Iran, most of the Mullahs that actually run that country and the Revolutionary Guard have expressed their belief that Israel should not exist. Thus for the Israelis this can be seen as an existential matter. If Iran were to get operational nuclear weapons and use them against Israel that state would suffer greatly. Likewise the Saudis are distrustful of the Iranians, but for different reasons. For the Saudis this is the great conflict between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam, a conflict that appears to be gaining steam in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon. It is  conflict that has the potential to be the Islamic equivalent of the Thirty Years war, that great bloodletting between Catholic and Protestant Europe. Iran and the Saudis are the leaders of the respective factions of Islam, they are mortal enemies.

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We have to be cognizant of both the Israeli and Saudi concerns. They are legitimate and because they are allies we must take them into account. That being said the most important security needs to be addressed by the United States are those of the United States. Sometimes those are not always the same of allies, even allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. That is something that has to be weighed in this case.

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The cold fact of the matter is that for many years we in the United States have become accustomed to resorting to military force first and neglecting the other aspects of national and international power that could be brought to bear to in achieving our national security and foreign policy goals. Those other aspects include economic power, information and diplomacy which unfortunately have been neglected. Presidents and our Congress have, even in spite of the misgivings of military leaders pursued the military option first.

After the attacks of September 11th 2001 the Bush Administration with the authorization of Congress pursued an almost single minded military solution to those attacks. That response was not only against the Al Qaeda terrorists but against their Afghan Taliban hosts and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

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Those campaigns have worn our military down. The resources spent in those countries, the lives lost, the money spent and the wear and tear on equipment have harmed our national security. But even above that in terms of strategy we eliminated the one natural enemy of Iran which helped hold them in check. We invaded Iraq and left it in a condition that it could no longer be the western bulwark against Iran. We turned down Iranian offers of help after September 11th and in doing so lost opportunities which might have led us and Iran down a different path. Instead President Bush declared Iran and Iraq both parts of an “Axis of Evil.”

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It was a declaration that the Iranians rightly understood as a declaration of war. Legally it may not have been, but the stated strategy enunciated by men like John Bolton and those we call the “Neocons” inside the Bush Administration and in associated think tanks could only be understood by the Iranians in that light. That end state envisioned by Bolton then and even now was regime change in not only Iraq, but also Iran. We have to ask ourselves this question: If another nation did this to us, how would we respond? I dare say that we, like the Iranians would dig in our heels and seek to develop military capacities that could defeat them, or if not defeat them make their “success” so costly that our enemies would not press us.

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Now because of those choices we are faced with a situation where Iran is estimated to be reasonably close to developing a nuclear weapon capacity. It is something that if it happens will result in a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The Israelis already have that capability and the Saudis are reportedly pursuing that capability. Thus it cannot be allowed to happen.

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That being said there are ways to ensure that does not happen. One advocated by those opposed to the deal is a hard line approach including pre-emptive military strikes against Iran, which not only would bring about a regional war but at best delay Iran a few years in procuring nuclear weapons.

The other is the course that has been pursued by the Obama Administration over the course of the past few years. That is the use of economic sanctions and diplomacy. As I said at the beginning this has not been our default policy over the past 12 years. But it is necessary. We are not in a good position to add yet another war, a war with world wide security and economic implications to our plate.

The fact is that due to the wars of the past 12 years as well as budget cuts including the sequestration cuts we are not in a good position to wage another war. We are stretched thin. Readiness thanks to sequestration is declining. The Chief of Staff of the Army stated that only two combat brigades are immediately deployable for combat operations. Could we launch another military campaign? Yes we could. But war, if we believe Clausewitz war is an extension of politics and policy. But we have to ask if would it achieve our overall policy goals? That I am not sure.  Clausewitz wrote: “No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by the war and how he intends to conduct it.”

In fact even if we delivered punishing strikes to Iran the costs could be great, and not just the economic costs.  Our campaign would have to be an air campaign to destroy hardened targets many of which we do not know the exact locations. Our record in such air campaigns is mixed. We spent over 70 days pounding Serbia with little to show for it in actual damage to their military. Likewise Iran is not Iraq, our targets will not be exposed in the open desert. Additionally Iranian A2/D2 (Anti-Access/Area Denial) capabilities pose great risks for US and Allied Warships as well as bases in the Arabian Gulf. If an Iranian Kilo Class submarine were to sink an American Aircraft Carrier it would not be a tactical setback, it would be a major loss of American strategic capability not just in the Middle East but world wide.

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Likewise as I mentioned before we took out the one natural opponent of Iran when we overthrew Saddam Hussein. In doing so we destroyed every bit of infrastructure, military power and civil government structures that any new Iraqi government would need to maintain any sense of a balance of power in the Arabian Gulf.

All that being said do I trust the Iranians? I cannot say that I do. I am a realist. I enlisted in 1981 in large part because of the Iranian takeover of the American Embassy and the hostage crisis. They remain a dictatorial regime which persecutes religious minorities including Christians. They restrict their people from open access to the internet and persecute political opponents. The Revolutionary Guards Corps, the most powerful organization in Iran has actively worked to destabilize other countries in the region. Their influence is great especially in regards to Lebanon’s Hezbollah which has launched missile campaigns against Israel and been active on the side of Syria dictator Bashir Assad in that country’s brutal civil war.

However the path of diplomacy must be given a reasonable chance to succeed. In the early 1970s President Nixon started a process of detente with the Soviet Union and Communist China. It was not embraced by hawks. President Ford, Carter and Reagan continued those policies to one degree or another with the final result being the fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of the Warsaw Pact and overthrow of Communism.

This deal is a start. It is not perfect at all. I see issues in it. but it is based on the politics and art of the possible. It has the potential to be a game changer in a region wracked by war and revolution, a region led for the most part by despots in which terrorists often operate freely. I don’t know if it will work, but I hope it does.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Real Conflict: Ethics and American Values Versus Realpolitik

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“A country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security” Henry Kissinger

There are a times in a nation’s life that its leaders are confronted with situations that present conflicts between a nation’s values and realpolitik.

The fact is that there are “tribes” in foreign policy and national security debates. Some are the idealists, others pragmatists and some realists. There are gradients between the levels and sometimes depending on the situation an idealist might gravitate toward pragmatism or even realpolitik and visa versa. Sometimes it is a matter of politics, sometimes ideology and sometimes even  and no leader of no political is immune from these tensions.

The situation in Syria is one of those times where the conflicting agendas of the different foreign policy tribes conflict and where no matter what happens in Syria the conflicts between the tribes will remain and perhaps even grow more pronounced. The fact is that I often can find myself on several sides of the same argument. It might be the PTSD “Mad Cow” is causing these conflicts but it could also be that there are good arguments to be made on all sides of the argument. What is ultimately the right course or the wrong course is actually hard to say.

If we argue for the idealist position, which would argue that American values of stopping human rights violations and the use of chemical weapons, something prohibited under the Hague convention and the more recent Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992 against the realpolitik of what are the actual National Security interests of the United States, the vital interests which involve the survival of the nation itself, major interests which could impact national security or tertiary interests which might have some importance but do not threaten the survival of the nation, even of they are terrible crimes against humanity.

Whether one likes it or not these are legitimate ethical and policy conflicts. On one hand there is the position that the United States has taken following World War Two and the Nuremberg trials as well as its participation in the International Criminal Courts has a moral obligation to confront the use of chemical weapons even if other nations or international bodies stand aside. On the other hand the argument that what happens in Syria is not in the vital interests of the United States and that the United States should not take military action to stop the use of those weapons. The fact is that those that advocate military action in Syria be they politicians, pundits, preachers or profiteers need to remember the words of Carl Von Clausewitz that “No one starts a war – or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so – without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” I really don’t think that we have thought this through as a nation.

Of course these two positions are not exclusive. There are also ranges of action which span the full spectrum of action between the either or situation that most Americans seem to find themselves caught between. The fact is that the National Security Strategy of the United States is not based on military might alone, no matter how much it has been used as the first choice by American leaders. The reality is that military force is only one element, and perhaps the weakest element of the elements of national security police known as the “DIME.” That is the Diplomatic, the Informational, the Military and the Economic power of the nation. What we seem to have forgotten is that the other elements of the DIME other than the gut level military response have value and are perhaps even more important.

I think that a large part of this conundrum is found in the reflexive use of military force as the preferred means of action since the attacks of September 11th 2001. On that day the United States was attacked by the terrorist attacks of Al Qaeda militants and while the victims of those attacks were overwhelmingly American the citizens of over 60 other nations we killed in the attacks.

Those attacks demonstrated the vulnerabilities of this nation. When one looks at our actual national security policy it is clear that those vulnerabilities are not always fixed by military action in other countries. In fact they sometimes can become even more glaring as resources required for Homeland Defense and economic recovery are spent on military operations of dubious strategic value and which at times undermine efforts to build trust with other nations, build coalitions based on shared values and to undercut the efforts of extremists using diplomacy, information and economic power.

What we have to answer now is how we address a situation in Syria that is both a violation of international law but which military force alone cannot solve. Of course there is a conflict between our ideals and what are vital national security concerns. I would suggest that the real threat of military action can be a part of the answer if it helps the United States and the world make the case through diplomacy, information and economic pressure not only to stop the slaughter but to hold those responsible for it accountable in International Criminal Courts for the commission of war crimes. At the same time the reality is that the United States and the world cannot allow an Al Qaeda dominated organization such as the Al Nursa Front gain control of Syria.

The fact is that despite how clear cut we want things to be as Americans that much of what happens in the world takes place in a world of more than 50 shades of gray. Unfortunately American conservatives and liberals alike prefer to see foreign policy in the “either or” world of using pure military force or doing nothing, neither of which of themselves are the answer. The full continuum of national and international power must be brought to bear in these kind of situations, recognizing that not everyone shares our values or has the same strategic interests.

It may not be comfortable for anyone but it is reality. How we navigate it is key, maintaining our values while ensuring that our nation survives. If military action is decided on one has to remember what Clausewitz said: “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and the means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes.”

To make a decision without understanding this or as we did in Iraq ignoring it is to risk disaster. Such are the stakes. I personally would rather see more negotiation in the hopes that the Syrian chemical and biological weapons are secured and those responsible for using them, be they Assad, his government or even the rebels attempting to frame the Syrians and deceive the United States against the Syrian people are brought to justice.

This is a messy business and not for the faint of heart. Lives of thousands of people in Syria, the region and potentially around the world are at stake and a military strike that fails to accomplish the political object would be worse than none at all.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Guns of September: Beginnings, Endings and Beginnings

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“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.”  T. E. Lawrence

In September 1939 Adolf Hitler led his Nazi regime into the bloodiest war in human history. In September 1945 that war ended when representatives of Germany’s ally Imperial Japan signed the instruments of surrender on the deck of the Battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. In those 5 years  over 60 million people died and the world changed.

Twenty five years before Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht into Poland the former leaders of the imperial dynasties of Europe as well as France  had led their world into the abyss of the First World War. In that war close to 37 million people, both military and civilian died.

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In both conflicts leaders schemed to ensure that their nations would come out on top and the human costs were simply counted as immaterial so long as the overall goals of conquest and domination were achieved.

Since the Second World War ended the world has not become a safer place. In fact because the United Nations which was in essence created to prevent war and mitigate its effects has been so politicized where just five nations on the Security Council hold the key to it being able to act forcibly to stop genocide and the used of weapons of mass destruction. More often than not at least one of those five nations, the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France have ensured that whichever despot they they support is protected from any action by the world body through the use of their veto in the UN Security Council.

No we stand at the precipice of war again. This time in Syria. The United States, France and a number of other countries have concluded that the regime of Bashir Assad has employed the nerve agent Sarin against its own people in their bloody civil war.  This is disputed by the Russians as well as the Syrians but backed up by the Israelis and Saudi Arabians.

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As for the United States leading any strike on Syria to either degrade or weaken the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction that they might have it finds itself on the horns of a dilemma. If it does nothing then the Assad regime can claim hat it forced the United States to back down and continue to slaughter its own people. If the United States attacks there is some chance of the strikes having some effect on the Syria ability to make war on their own people but opens the possibility of a wider and more bloody conflict, a conflict that may solve nothing but actually make matters worse.

The United State is also hindered on the world stage and at home by the Iraq debacle brought on by the Bush Administration. Despite the fact that less than one percent of the population has served in the military since the attacks of 9-11-2001 and even fewer have served in combat zones the political leaders, talking heads, pundits, preachers and media in general referrer to the country as “war weary.” The retired former Chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay made the comment on Twitter that they must be tired of shopping since so few have actually served. If there is war weariness it is in the military which has been in continuous action since 9-11-2001 and if we want to be honest almost ever since the First Gulf War with stops in the Balkans and Somalia along the way. I have been in the military 32 years and I have lost count of the number of places that we have deployed forces to and the amount of time that I have spent away from home. I think I have been away from my wife 10 of the last 17 years due to deployments and assignments that took me away from home. But I digress…

The fact of the matter that there are a number of layers to the situation in Syria that all need to be addressed but will not be. Instead they will be spun by those in favor or those opposed to war and mostly for for a very fleeting political advantage. An advantage only as good as today’s polls.

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In the past couple of days the Obama Administration has been taking its case for action against Syria to the American people and Congress and also to other nations. The reasons for intervention have been primarily moral as well as citing the precedent of international law regarding chemical weapons. Real politic has not played much of a role, at least yet but it should.

The reality is that the Obama Administration as well as the UN, the Arab League, NATO, the EU and other nations with an interest in what happens in Syria have to deal with the moral and ethical level of the arguments for or against intervention. They also have to look at the legal justification which depending on which part of international law you examine could be used to argue for or against the legality of intervention. Finally there is the real politic of the situation, not only the chances of a successful intervention but the consequences of action versus inaction, action versus delay in the hopes of finding another solution and the results of whatever course of action is taken. After all, there are always results and even the most well intended and executed plans result in unintended consequences.

As I have said a number of times I think that President Obama is damned no matter what he decides to do and that this war no matter what we do in the next week will most likely spill over the borders of Syria into adjoining countries. That is already happening in the form of refugees going into Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, further instability in Lebanon and occasional skirmishes along the Syria and Lebanon borders with Israel. The question is not “if” but rather when and how the military conflict and sectarian violence spreads to other countries surrounding Syria. That has t be weighed with the consequences of and consideration of the “branches and sequels” to any intervention or non-intervention strategy employed by the United States and whatever allies choose to go along for the ride.

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I am not in favor of war. That being said I do not know if there is a way to avoid it yet still enforce the norms of moral behavior in terms of the use of chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons.

There are times that I wonder about those who believe that they can orchestrate policy that only benefits their country or political-economic interests. The fact is that the “war genie” is out of the bottle and where the situation in Syria ends is anybody’s best guess. What we do have to remember is that those rebelling against the Assad regime are not doing so for our benefit or for that matter any other nation’s benefit. What T. E. Lawrence said of the Arabs who revolted against the Ottoman Empire in the First World War is as true now as it was then:

“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.”

There are nations and groups attempting to use this for their own interests and ultimately it will blow back on them. The region is perched on the abyss of war, possibly without end. What happens now will be less decided by what happens in Washington or the capitals or Europe or the United Nations but with the people actually fighting the war, their active supporters and their proxies.

As far as the United States political scene if a single leader votes for or against war based purely on their individual or political party’s gain in either the 2014 or 2016 elections or to undermine the current President a pox on them. I want an honest debate about the real world consequences, ethical, legal, moral, economic, military and geopolitical of any intervention or non-intervention in Syria. We owe it to the Syrians, those people in the region as well as our own people, especially those who will certainly bear the burden of whatever war ensues.

Honestly, we really need to think this through before so much as one missile is launched.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Syria: The History and the Really Hard Questions for All of Us

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Today President Obama called on the U.S. Congress to take up and debate an authorization for the use of military force in Syria. From any moral viewpoint his words on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government his words were correct. Likewise his calling to account of the international community, 98% of whom are signatories to treaties outlawing the use of these weapons against anyone to support this action was correct. The fact that he also demanded that Congress come into session and do its job was correct.

In spite of all of that the use of military force to attempt to force a change in the way that the government of Bashir Assad is problematic and fraught with danger. The chances of escalation and the involvement of other nations and non-state actors are great and even a “successful” operation could lead to subsequent events detrimental to the United States, the West, the region and even to Syria and its people.

A big part of this is due to the complexity of Syria itself and its history. Syria is a complicated mosaic of cultures, peoples and religions often at odds with one another. The fact that the Assad regime has remained in power is because of its brutality and willingness to play off the various factions against each other. The Assad family is of the minority Alawite sect of Shi’a Moslems from the western region of the country. One needs to read T. E. Lawrence’s 1915 report on Syria to get a glimpse of the complexity of Syria and to understand that one has to proceed carefully when dealing with any faction. http://www.telstudies.org/writings/works/articles_essays/1915_syria_the_raw_material.shtml

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The fact is that the best chance for a stable Syria disappeared in 1920 when the French, emulating the British in Mesopotamia (Iraq) overthrew the government of Emir Faisal Hussein. Lawrence wrote a powerful essay about this http://www.telstudies.org/writings/works/articles_essays/1920_france_britain_and_the_arabs.shtml and when one examines the actions of the British and the French in Syria and Iraq one has to look at history. The British were willing to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq because of history, the same is true of why the French are willing to stand with the United States in Syria. The Germans for their own part frustrated by imperial ambitions in the Middle East in the First World War and a failed attempt to support an Iraqi uprising against the British in 1941 have no interest in a war that might bring disorder and terrorism among the many Moslems that reside in their country. The Turks of course have no love for the Arabs and once counted Syria as a valuable part of the Ottoman Empire. Disorder in Syria is dangerous to them but ultimately they could benefit since they have been shouldering much of the humanitarian burden.

The Jordanian royal family has no love for Syria being the descendants of Faisal Hussein while the Israelis see Syria as a mortal enemy. Lebanon which was carved out of Syria after the First World War is hopelessly divided and with Hezbollah, the erstwhile ally of Iran in de-facto control of the country in danger of becoming a front in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Iran being the close ally of Syria has great opportunity to expand its power and should a military strike occur might become directly involved although the more likely scenario is that they would allow their Hezbollah allies to shoulder the burden of strikes against Israel and United States or other Western interests in the region. One cannot leave out the Russians who are behaving much as the Tsarist Regime did regarding the region in the First World War when they signed on to the Sykes-Picot agreement.

If the United States does nothing Assad wins. He shows that he and anyone like him who conduct themselves outside the norms of international law and human rights can get away it it. If we intervene it might strengthen his grip, likewise if our strikes were successful enough to weaken his grip and allow the rebels to take power the results could be even worse since the Al Qaeda ally Al Nursa is the strongest and most militarily effective part of the rebel forces.

In a sense the Obama administration is damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t and damned if it does no matter what the outcome. It sucks for him because he is the President and it is his job he will get the blame. This despite the fact that his freedom of action in large part is undermined by the actions of the Bush Administration in the Iraq lead up and invasion. There are always results in foreign policy decisions. The invasion of Iraq has harmed our interests in more ways than its architects ever imagined, it was a foreign policy disaster of the first order that impacts everything that we do today in the Middle East.

That is why before a single cruise missile is launched the United States Congress must debate the action and go all in or stay out. The fact is that if we do this, and I hope, we don’t we have to do it right. We have to understand the consequences and do what we can under our system of government to debate the issue, look at the ramifications, not just in the region but to our own economy and national power.

If we do it the Sequester has to be repealed in all parts, you cannot wage war on the cheap and expect a military that is worn out by 12 years of war to keep taking on more war without funding it. The Tea Party Republicans who are attempting to hold the government hostage through the Sequester and a possible government shutdown cannot have it both ways. It is irresponsible of them to continue this madness until we can get out of Afghanistan and avoid involvement in Syria or other conflicts.

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That my friends is the hard truth about Syria. So before you get too caught up in the opening of the College and NFL football seasons forgetting that a dangerous world exists take some time to ponder and if you have the civic decency to write your Congressman and Senator on the subject. Pro or con tell them what you think and demand accountability. If you don’t do that don’t blame President Obama for what happens because you have failed your country as citizens.

Sorry I guess that might hurt. But we didn’t do that in Iraq. Today the 4486 dead American military personnel as well as all the other dead and wounded, American, Allied and Iraqi alike and those like me afflicted with chronic PTSD demand that you do it now. It is a moral responsibility of the first order of much greater importance than your fantasy football league.

Peace

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It Never Rains in Southern California: Padre Steve Heads Home to Visit Family and Attend His 35th High School Reunion

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Got on board a westbound seven forty-seven

Didn’t think before deciding what to do

Ooh, that talk of opportunities, TV breaks and movies

Rang true, sure rang true …

It Never Rains in Southern California, Albert Hammond EMI Music

I am heading off to California in morning. It is Northern California and not Southern California but like the classic Albert Hammond Song says “it never rains in California” so I hope this will be the case this week. The weather channel says so maybe it won’t be too bad.

As far as the trip I have to be up pretty early since I have an early flight. So tonight after doing another full day of work around the house I went out with Judy for dinner. Since then I have been getting packed and ready to go.

It has been since my dad died in June of 2010 that I have been home. My last few trips out in 2008 and 2009 happened after Iraq when my dad was dying and I was to put it mildly bat shit crazy in the midst of my post-Iraq PTSD meltdown. Thankfully I am doing a lot better than I was back then.

The costs of the three year geographic bachelor assignment at Camp LeJeune and the need to use leave to go home to Virginia made a heck of an impact on normal travel and vacation plans. We haven’t done much traveling at all the past three years. Apart from a couple of official travel trips to Washington DC or Houston and another to testify at a Court Martial in Germany I have not been out of Virginia and North Carolina. It will be good to see my mom, my brother and his family while I am there as well as my classmates whom I have maintained contact with over all of these years. Our class was special and I really do look forward to seeing my friends again.

My trip is now set except for checking in at the airport in the morning. I have my flight, car and hotel reservations. Thankfully the flight was all but free thanks to a the need of United Airlines to get a flight crew to Washington Dulles on my last trip, netting me a $500 flight voucher which I applied to this trip meaning that my rental car and hotel were the only up front expenses. Since Judy had foot surgery Monday and is on crutches for a few days I will be taking a cab to save her the hassle of trying to get me to the airport so early.

Now I have to admit ever since Iraq I am not a fan of air travel or airports. So once I get to the airport I will probably have breakfast with a cup of black coffee and a pint of Sam Adams at the Sports Bar in the terminal. Flying the friendly skies with a heft case of PTSD requires some adjustments. Since my flight is basically free I will probably try to upgrade my seating for at least the Chicago to San Francisco portion of my trip to avoid being stuck in steerage.

I can’t help but think that while I am on leave between assignments and traveling to California that the United States and much of the world sits on the precipice of war in Syria which could very well have regional and possibly world wide effects. I check in to my new assignment at the Joint Forces Staff College on Tuesday of next week, the morning following my return. I wonder if as Barbara Tuchman wrote about in The Guns of August that the world that I return to on Monday evening or Tuesday morning will be quite different than it is today.

“The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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All In or Stay the Hell Out: Syria, the United States NATO and the Middle East, the Guns of August All Over Again

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The Balkans aren’t worth the life of a single Pomeranian grenadier.”  Otto Von Bismarck

The terrible civil war in Syria appears to be reaching its crescendo as someone, probably the Assad Regime or its allies, or possibly the Syrian rebels are using Chemical weapons to kill non-combatants and rebel combatants. The evidence that the weapons have been used is apparently convincing enough for the UN to send in inspectors and for the US Secretary of State John Kerry to state that it is certain that they have been used.

Now NATO allies as well as representatives of Jordan and the Gulf States are meeting to decide what to do in response. Since most experts believe that the Assad regime is culpable for these attacks the belief is that the United Sates, NATO and the Arab Allies could be preparing for some kind of attack Syria. The Russians, long time supporters of Syria are pushing back against this and the Syrians are promising that any attack will result in a war that envelopes the region.

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What is happening in Syria is a tragedy and must be stopped. War crimes have certainly been committed by all sides in Syria and the direct involvement of Hezbollah and Iran on the side of the Assad regime and Al Qaeda affiliates on the side of the rebels complicate any response. However, that being said the question must be asked “just whose responsibility is to stop it?”

Some say the United States and NATO, others the Arab League while others the various factions of Syrians themselves.

My heart cries out for intervention in Syria if for nothing else but on humanitarian grounds. But the fact is intervention in Syria has to be much more thought out and organized than intervention that we have conducted since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It will not be a cake walk and quite likely will lead to consequences far worse than the average citizen or boneheaded Congressman has never given a cogent thought.

Syria is an incredibly complicated country. It is multi-ethnic and multi-religion. Arabs, Kurds, Druze and others live in patchwork communities and regions even as various sects of Sunni, Shia, Sufi and Salafist Moslems vie for power while the divided Christian minority , Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and others hope to live and remain in their own country.

As far as others in the Region besides Iran and Hezbollah, various Sunni and Shia Iraqi insurgents have crossed over into Syria, while Israel teeters on the bring of being drawn in to the conflagration.

No matter what happens there will be no winners in what is happening in Syria. There is a high probability that the Syrian civil war will overflow the borders of that unfortunate country and drag the region and possibly major world powers into the war. If that happens there are no winners, only losers. The biggest question is who will be the biggest loser?

That being said even tonight there are reports of military movements in the region even as NATO and Arab coalition partners gather to discuss a response. I am resigned to the fact that the Syrian Civil war will overflow Syria’s borders and draw in the powers of many countries. Just who I am not exactly sure at this time. In the US there is a marked tepid feeling among voters about getting involved. That may be a good thing. It may temper our response and make us deliberate the consequences of military action or inaction.

Bertrand Russell once said that “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” I wonder if anyone in any of the nations currently involved or possibly that might be engaged in the war actually things about what Russell said.

The fact is that what is going on in Syria is the proverbial “Tar Baby.” There is no clean easy solution to the situation. Lobbing in a few hundred cruise missiles and launching airstrikes in support of the rebels is unlikely to have a profound strategic affect. Instead, unless NATO and its allies are willing to risk an actual ground war after the missile and air strikes then the fact of the matter is that those strikes will have little long term effect. If a ground invasion happens it will be bloody and not the cake walk that so many in Western Governments, media and populations that rely on a very small number of military professionals to fight their wars think it will be.

If by some chance the United States and its allies get drawn into the Syrian Civil War than all of them had better think of what the consequences of that involvement will be, for the region, the world and our own countries. The fact is that a major war in Syria will drag the rest of the region into it. This is not 2003 Iraq or 2011 Libya. The fact is that Syria is heavily splintered into various regional, ethnic and religious groups, most who have lived among each other for millennia and most of whom hate each other.

I cannot speak for other governments around the region and the world, allied to the United States or not. However I do know that our Constitution has in it the formula of who should committed the country to war and that, despite our recent history is not the President by his executive authority Commander in Chief but by Congress after due deliberation and a vote to declare war.

My thoughts are that if we in the United States are serious about this, that we believe that Syria and Assad need to be taken down then fine. Let us call Congress back to Washington now and have them debate the issue. If they vote for war then they need to do two things, the first is that Congress needs to be called away from its vacation and get to work debating the issue. If the President backed by a declaration of war from Congress and a repeal of the sequester that is gutting the country and the military.

If they cannot do this then let’s stop the bullshit and tell the work that the situation in Syria is terrible but the consequences of going to war without either an end in mind or analysis of the costs involved is criminal. Bismarck said it well in regard to the Balkans and his comments should be taken to heart by the United States and its allies.

The situation in Syria cries out for action, but that action must be action that helps the people of Syria, the region and the world and is not just an action to salve our collective consciousness and say that we did something. Simply throwing some cruise missiles at Syria accomplishes nothing unless there is a plan of what we intend to see happen. William Tecumseh Sherman said: “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”

My thoughts on this are to make going to war difficult. If the President and his cabinet determines that they believe in consultations with our allies that war is the last and best of the worst case options, the Congress needs to cut short its vacation. Republican and Democrat leaders need to gather and a decision has to be made. If we go to war it can no longer be done under the very loose and terribly vague rules of the War Powers Act because any attack on Syria will certainly escalate beyond a short term military strike done “on the cheap.”

There is no cheap or easy to Syria. If military action is the only way to solve the problem then Congress must convene, make a formal declaration of war and also repeal sequestration. A war in Syria will be costly in blood and treasure and will likely pull in many other countries. The human costs in the region, not just Syria will be beyond imagination while the costs to the world economy will be severe and quite possibly push the world into another recession or possibly depression.

The military power alone of the United States has been used far too many times as our governments under successive Republican and Democrat leadership have opted not to use the full measure of our diplomatic, intelligence, military and economic power to solve problems. Instead we fall back to the easiest and most ready means to satiate our need for a quick solution to complex problems, the military option. Military power alone, especially if it is incapable of ending the conflict and bringing a just peace is not an answer in Syria.

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The fact is that we Americans do not know the world nor do we understand it. Americans have become simple and lazy when it comes to dealing with complex issues. We deal in sound bites and tweets, the more fiery the better even as we stick our heads in the sand as to what is happening in the world. Ask how many people are more interested in the beginning of the College and Pro-Football seasons in the next couple of weeks versus those interested in really important issues of war and peace and you will get your answer on our priorities as Americans. We have no sense of history and are quite ignorant of the world around us and the political, cultural, religious, philosophical, ideological and economic factors that make up our world so our first response is almost always the sword.

If the President and Congress feel that it is absolutely necessary to go to war over the atrocities being committed in Syria let them make that decision, but only after considerable debate, consultations with allies, the United Nations and the Arab League followed by a vote on an actual declaration of war, the repeal of sequestration and a major stimulus to prevent the economy from tanking when the cost of oil goes through the roof and cripples the world economy.

Winston Churchill cautioned leaders “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.” 

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To paraphrase Bismarck, Syria is not worth the life of one American or Allied Soldier unless our governments are willing to do it right. All in or stay the hell out and don’t go in without counting the real and the potential costs.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Inconvenient Truth About Iraq and Benghazi

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“The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth or historical truth or personal truth! It is the guiding principle on which Starfleet is based. And if you can’t find it within yourself to stand up and tell the truth about what happened, you don’t deserve to wear that uniform!” Captain Jean Luc Picard to Wesley Crusher Star Trek the Next Generation “The First Duty” 

I was talking with a conservative friend the other day and he ended up bring up the subject of Benghazi and the tragic loss of Ambassador Chris Stevens and 3 other State Department personnel at the consulate last September 11th. He was talking about the scandal of this and the political impact that he hoped it would have on Hillary Clinton in 2016.

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I was actually shocked that he said this so for once I decided to actually say something and mention the 4486 official US military deaths in Iraq. My friend who I really do like and respect commented that they were “the result of what happened in war.”

It stunned me when he said that because he is a military brat, but then I realized that he had bought the lie about Iraq and was so solidly partisan that he could not see the moral, ethical and even legal discrepancy in what he was saying. For me the question was far less about whatever impact it might have on Hillary’s campaign should she decide to run but about the truth.

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When I confronted him about it I was stunned by how easily he dismissed all of the dead and wounded and other casualties of Iraq but was so insistent on some kind of conspiracy to cover up Benghazi. But this is how so many people think today thanks to the constant bombardment of ignorance on Fox News and other partisan outlets. It is not about the truth, it is about the nastiest kind of politics.

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I too am upset about Benghazi, but likewise I am upset about the 241 Marines, Sailors and Soldiers killed at Beirut in October 1983 when the Reagan Administration ignored warnings about putting US troops into Lebanon while taking sizes in that county’s civil war. I am upset about the nearly 3000 killed on 9-11-2001. I am upset about dozens of other terrorist attacks that occurred under both Republican and Democratic administrations in which DOD, the State Department and other agencies made mistakes that cost lives.

Some attacks could have been prevented and others probably not. However they were terrorist attacks committed by our enemies, not an illegal undeclared war of preemptive choice conducted by a United States administration against the will and recommendations of many of our closest allies. That is the inconvenient truth.

What has happened over the past decade is that many on the political right cannot admit that they were wrong about Iraq. This despite the fact that President Bush, Karl Rove and almost every senior member of the the Bush administration have admitted that the reasons that they took us into war with Iraq were wrong. There were no weapons of mass destruction, the nuclear program was a shambles and Iraq was not working with Al Qaida, which like most secular military dictatorships in the Middle East loathed. That is the inconvenient truth.

The fact that so many people on the political right go into a nearly toxic lather about four people lost in Benghazi while shucking off the deaths of nearly 5000 Americans who died in a war that was not only a mistake but violated the very laws that we helped establish at Nuremberg infuriates me. This is no longer about national security to them, it is about politics. This is not about ethics for those that led us into Iraq have none. It is not about justice for if there was justice those who made the decision to attack Iraq would be tried for war crimes.

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I served in Iraq and was fortunate that I served with our advisors and the Iraqis in Al Anbar during the time of the Anbar Awakening. I saw a different war than many people observed and for that I am glad because it busted my illusions about what we did in Iraq forever. I needed that. I may have come back thoroughly goofed up with PTSD and at times I am sure certifiably crazy, but I needed it to see the truth.

The fact is that unlike Benghazi the war in Iraq has crippled this country. Nearly 5000 dead, 30,000 wounded and trillions of dollars of national treasure dumped into the abyss. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, wounded or driven into exile, many who greeted us as liberators.  Of course that was before the Bush Administration put the kleptocrats of the Chalabi group rape and pillage the country.

Likewise it was after the Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremer, a man who had never in his career served in the Middle East threw out ever carefully orchestrated plan of DOD and CENTCOM for a peaceful transition in the country thus bringing misery to Iraq and triggering the anti US-Coalition insurgency and Iraqi Civil War. The great military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz said: “No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” The fact is that the Bush Administration was not only not clear, but they were inept and lawless in invading Iraq.

Additionally the invasion cost the United States the goodwill and trust of many allies and friends. No one will ever see us in the same light again. Instead of being a liberating power and “light to the nations” we are seen in much of the world as a rogue, lawless and imperialist state. Otto Von Bismarck put it so well when he said “preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”

I don’t know about you but I am sure that is not the vision of our founders. I was told on my first day in the Army back in 1981 that “there are attaboys and aww shits and it takes 2000 attaboys to make up for one aww shit.” The Bush Administration’s lawless invasion of Iraq and incredibly inept occupation was a disaster for the United States, Iraq and most of the region, except maybe for Al Qaida and Iran. By the way let us not forget the crippling effects of the Iraq invasion on the campaign in Afghanistan which allowed both the Taliban and Al Qaida time to regroup, consolidate and regain the advantage in that God forsaken land.To the 4486 we can add a couple of thousand more deaths in Afghanistan thanks to the decision to invade Iraq. That is the inconvenient truth.

For people to ignore a war that defies American and International Law as well as common sense which cost us and the world so much while making cheap political points by exploiting the deaths of four men is a disgrace. Had the men who started the invasion of Iraq been tried for by Justice Robert Jackson at Nuremberg they would have been convicted as war criminals and sent to the gallows. That is the inconvenient truth.

Justice Jackson said at those trials:

“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.” Justice Robert Jackson International Conference on Military Trials, London, 1945, Dept. of State Pub.No. 3080 (1949), p.330.

My closing thought is that those that want to make political hay out of Benghazi need to take a serious look at Iraq. What’s fair is fair. 4486 dead and over 30,000 wounded not counting another 100,000 or so with PTSD or TBI versus 4 dead and no wounded. I don’t make light of any of the deaths of Americans serving this country at any time or in any place.  I would not dishonor their memory by playing politics with their deaths. But the truth is indeed terribly inconvenient and those who do this must be called out regardless of their political orientation.

If there were mistakes or cover ups by Obama administration officials regarding Benghazi, so be it let them be investigated fairly an impartially not with an eye to political advantage and those that partake of this cup must be willing to drink of the cup of crimes committed by the Bush Administration in Iraq. The same is true when Democrats do the same to Republicans.

Truth matters too much to be sacrificed on the altar of politics even while those doing it ignore far greater crimes of far more epic dimensions committed by members of their political party.

Truth is terribly inconvenient and even when painful should never be sacrificed on the altar of political advantage by partisans of any party.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, national security

To Iraq and Back: Days at the Deployment Processing Center

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Me Aboard an Iraqi Oil Smuggler in 2002

This is another installment of my account of my account of mine and RP1 Nelson Lebron’s deployment to Iraq in 2007.

By the time the first day had ended there were nearly 120 of us being processed to serve in individual augment positions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Djibouti. Most of us were going to Iraq at this time since the “surge” was at its peak.

NMPS was just the first stop on the way to Iraq, for us it was the initial administrative processing that we would receive on the to Iraq. Most of our compatriots, save a few Seabees or Medical types who had served with the Marines had neither been on a deployment like this, been trained for land warfare of had served in a combat zone except aboard ship. After Norfolk we would receive more specific training and equipment at Fort Jackson South Carolina and then Kuwait.

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Nelson with an Afghani child in 2005

When compared to many of our fellow sailors Nelson and I had a lot of experience. I had served in the Army and both of us had served in infantry units of the Fleet Marine Force. Additionally Nelson had served with Naval Special Warfare Group Two, and the Marine 3rd Recon Battalion. He had previously served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. I had much field experience with the Army and Marines and had been a part of a boarding team from the USS HUE CITY which conducted boarding operations supporting the UN Oil Embargo on Iraq in 2002. Likewise, Nelson is an accomplished martial artist, boxer, kick boxer and MMA fighter who has competed at many levels, while I am a military historian and theoretician  with much advanced education in both on top of my theological and pastoral care training and experience.

Our mobilization processing proceeded the next couple of days as we received our immunizations, were issued DCUs and other clothing needed for the deployment.  Nelson and I of course were already well outfitted by our unit, EOD Group Two, much more so than our counterparts reporting from other fleet units or the reserves.

In spite of this we drew additional DCU uniforms, brown t-shirts, socks and a host of miscellaneous gear. Thankfully as I have mentioned, EOD had outfitted us well including boots of our choosing, not the standard uncomfortable Army issue desert boots being provided to the rest of the sailors. I had a pair of Blackhawks and a pair of Magnum 5.11’s, both much more comfortable than those being issued. As far as other gear we already had much of it, and because it was EOD issue it was superior quality to  much of what was being issued.

Wills and powers of attorneys were drawn up by JAG officers. We updated our “page 2s” the record of who we wanted notified in the event of our demise were verified. Additionally new dog tags ordered and a myriad of forms were filled out, in typical military fashion often for the second or third time.

Of course even before we reported to NMPS we had we had completed numerous online pre-deployment courses on Navy Knowledge Online or NKO to orient us to operations, health and safety issues and for Nelson classes on the M-16A2 and M9 Pistol. Some were good but many were of dubious value especially in the online format.I could have taught many of them. Obviously some contractor got rich selling them to the Navy, but such is war and the activities of war profiteers who make their living inferior products to the military.

Both of us had the additional advantage of living in the Norfolk area so we could spend times with friends or family.

At the end of each day we were able to go home while our companions who had come from other locations were staying in transient quarters on base.

Since we had the 4th of July off we would both take advantage of it.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, to iraq and back, Tour in Iraq, US Navy