Category Archives: middle east

Wars Without Mercy: The New Old Way of War

MacArthur Shigemitsu

Today is significant for it marks the end of the World War Two in the Pacific. Sixty-nine years ago a delegation from the Imperial Japanese government signed surrender documents with the Americans and their Allies aboard the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The surrender marked the end of one of the most brutal wars ever fought, a war between two sides where in many cases no quarter was given. Violations of the Geneva and Hague conventions ran rampant on both sides as the respective governments and the media of each nation dehumanized and demonized their opponents, making it that much easier to excuse wanton barbarism and cruelty. 

Today another American reporter, Steven Sotloff, was beheaded by the ISIS/ISIL Islamic Caliphate, and as it does so often it released the video of the execution. The Caliphate, which developed out of Al Qaeda fighting the United States in Iraq has become a formidable fighting organization, with deep financial resource is gaining radicalized adherents around the world, and its brutality toward all enemies, even other Moslems is unmatched. The propaganda of the Caliphate against its enemies is similar to what was used by both sides in the Second World War and with each massacre of civilians, each execution of innocent reporters, humanitarian workers and others they ensure that they will reap the whirlwind.

What ISIS forgets is that beneath the civilized veneer of the West, that part of us that likes to abide by treaties and focus on human rights, is that when enraged Americans, Britons, Australians, Germans, Russians and even the French can be just as brutal and also fight wars without mercy. Our histories are full of such examples. The problem is that since we haven’t had to fight such a total war since the Second World War, the leaders of groups such as ISIS assume we are weak and decadent, easy targets. They forget the manner in which all sides, even the Allies waged the Second World War, especially in the Pacific, where the war was fought without mercy. 

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By waging war in the manner it is doing, ISIS will ensure that its leaders and members will receive no mercy. The post 9-11 response of the United States to Al Qaeda will look like a game compared to what is coming. And unfortunately, we will all lose a bit of our humanity, maybe even a lot of it the longer this war goes on. As far as propaganda, many U.S. politicians , corporate interests and our corporate media are great at promoting war and demonizing opponents. This will be brutal my friends and I for one wish it had never come about. I want peace, I went to Iraq believing that the Iraqis I served alongside and those who had me in their homes would eventually know peace. I grieve for them, as I grieve for all that will suffer in this new war without mercy. 

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I have reposted a book review of John Dower’s book “War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.” Pantheon Books, a Division of Random House, New York, NY 1986. I highly recommend the book to anyone who thinks that the conflict with ISIS will be anything but uncivilized and barbarous. It has all the elements to make it so: race, religion, ideology and power, it will mark a return to barbarism that many of us thought would never happen again. 

Here is that review.

The study of war cannot simply be confined to the study of battles, weapons and leaders. While all of these are important one must as Clausewitz understood examine the human element of policy, ideology and the motivations of nations as they wage war. Clausewitz understood that war could not be reduced to formulas and templates but involved what he called the “remarkable trinity” which he described in on war as (1) primordial violence, hatred, and enmity; (2) the play of chance and probability; and (3) war’s element of subordination to rational policy. Clausewitz connects this with the people being connected to the primordial forces of war, the military with the non-rational elements of friction, chance and probability and the government.

The Clausewitzian understanding of war is rooted in the Enlightenment and classic German Liberalism, born out of his experience in the Napoleonic Wars, which forever changed the face of warfare. From the defeat of Prussia and its liberation from Napoleonic rule under Scharnhorst and Gneisenau Clausewitz developed the understanding that war was more than simply tactics and weapons. Thus when we examine war today we deprive ourselves of properly understanding the dynamic of war if we fail to appreciate the human factor which is frequently not rational. Such is especially the case when one fights an enemy who wages war on religious, racial or ideological grounds as is the case in the current war against Al Qaida and other extremist Moslem groups. Such groups would like to turn this war into such a conflict as do certain figures in the American political milieu who repeatedly label all of Islam as the enemy. In such a climate it is imperative to look at history to show us the results of such primal passions.

It is in such conflict as we are engaged in today it is good to look at previous wars from the human experiential component and not simply military operations. If one wants to look at how inflamed passion driven by racial prejudice and hatred took war to a level of barbarity and totality that defy our comprehension we only need to look back to the Pacific war between Japan and the United States. In another post I dealt with the how racial ideology influenced Nazi Germany’s conduct of the war against Poland and the Soviet Union. http://padresteve.wordpress.com/2009/09/14/the-ideological-war-how-hitlers-racial-theories-influenced-german-operations-in-poland-and-russia/

To do this I will look at John Dower’s “War Without Mercy.” In this book Dower examines World War Two in the Pacific from the cultural and ideological viewpoints of the opposing sides. He looks at the war as a race war, which he says “remains one of the great neglected subjects of World War Two.”[i] Dower examines race hated and its influence on both the Japanese and the Allies, particularly in the way that each side viewed one another and conducted the war. He examines the nature of racial prejudice and hate in each society, including its religious, psychological, ideological, scientific and mythological components. He also examines the use of media and propaganda, and how racial attitudes not only influenced national and individual attitudes, but also the military and intelligence operations of both sides. This book is not about military campaigns, thus it is much more like “In the Name of War” by Jill Lepore[ii] than any history of the Pacific war.

Dower uses sources such as songs, movies, cartoons and various writings of the times to demonstrate the totality of the war. Dower admits many of these are difficult to handle and “not respectable sources in some academic sources.”[iii] Despite this he puts together a work that is sometimes chilling, especially when one looks at the current war that our country is engaged in. He also endeavors to explain how after a war where “extraordinarily fierce and Manichean”[iv] race hate predominated, it could “have dissipated so easily”[v] after the war was over.

Dower divides his work into three major sections. The first which examines how the aspect of race effected the fighting of the war, the second, the war through Western eyes and the third the war through Japanese eyes. The first section begins with how racial attitudes in Western and Japanese societies helped fuel the war and compares similar attitudes and concepts in Western and Japanese thought, including how “prejudice and racial stereotypes frequently distorted both Japanese and Allied evaluations of the enemy’s intentions and capabilities.”[vi] He looks at the language of the conflict; at how war words and race words came together “in a manner which did not reflect the savagery of the war, but truly contributed to it….”[vii] the result being “an obsession with extermination on both sides.”[viii] He comes back to this theme throughout the book comparing the two sides and occasionally contrasting these attitudes with corresponding attitudes of the Allies to their German and Italian foes in Europe.[ix]

In the first chapter Dower examines the role played by the propaganda used by both sides. In particular he expalins how the “Know Your Enemy: Japan” movies commissioned by the War Department and directed by Frank Capra, and the Japanese works “Read this and the War is Won” and “The Way of the Subject” helped shape the view of each side. Propaganda developed the idea of the war in terms of good versus evil and the mortal threat posed to their respective cultures by the enemy.

From this he looks at the visceral emotions that the war engendered and how those emotions spilled over into the conduct of the war especially in regard to its ferocity and the war crimes that were spawned by the unbridled hatred of both sides. He notes the targeted terror bombings of civilians by both sides and how those actions were portrayed as “barbaric” by the other side when they were the victim.[x] He notes the viciousness of the war and how for the Americans the war brought forth “emotions forgotten since our most savage Indian wars.”[xi] He contrasts this with European war in particular how the Japanese and their actions were portrayed in Western media, and how similar actions by the Germans, such as the Holocaust, were ignored by Western media until the war was over.[xii] He traces some of this to the understanding of the psychological effects of the defeats and humiliations of the Allies at the hands of the Japanese, and the corresponding brutality toward Allied prisoners by the Japanese as compared to that of the Germans.[xiii] He uses this section to also examine the prevailing attitudes of the Japanese toward the Allies as being weak and “psychologically incapable of recovery” from blows such as the Pearl Harbor attack, and the Allied view of the Japanese as “treacherous.”[xiv]

Dower’s second major section describes the attitudes and actions of the Americans and British toward their Japanese enemy. He looks at the view that the Japanese were less than human and often portrayed as apes or other primates such as monkeys. To do this he examines cartoons and illustrations in popular magazines and military publications, and includes those cartoons in the book. The sheer vulgarity of these cartoons is easily contrasted with those promoted and published by Nazis such as Julius Streicher in Der Stürmer, something often overlooked or ignored in other histories.[xv] The early Western views of Japan as sub-human continued throughout the war, while at the same time, especially after the rapid series of Allied defeats and Japanese victories they were viewed as almost “super-human.” Paradoxically some allied leaders turned the Japanese from “the one time “little man” into a Goliath.”[xvi] They were now “tough, disciplined and well equipped.”[xvii] Ambassador Joseph Grew, reported on his return from Japan, that the Japanese were; “”sturdy,” “Spartan,” “clever and dangerous,” and that “his will to conquer was “utterly ruthless, utterly cruel and utterly blind to the values that make up our civilization….””[xviii] The juxtaposition of such conflicting attitudes is curious, although understandable, especially in light of other Western wars against Asians or Arabs.[xix]

Dower then examines how some Americans and British explained the Japanese “National Character,” their approach to war, and actions during the war from Freudian psychiatry as well as Anthropology and other social and behavioral sciences. Beginning with the widespread Allied understanding that the Japanese were “dressed-up primitives-or “savages” in modern garb…”[xx] he notes that these interpretations of the Japanese national character stemmed from “child-rearing practices and early childhood experiences,”[xxi] including toilet training and Freudian interpretations that saw an arrested psychic development at the “infantile (anal or genital) stage of development.”[xxii] Dower deduces that it was not hard to see how “Japanese overseas aggression became explicable in terms of penis envy or a castration complex….”[xxiii] The views were widespread and emphasized that the “Japanese were collectively unstable.”[xxiv] Dower notes that the “very notion of “national character”-was the application to whole nations and cultures of an analytical language that had been developed through personal case studies…”[xxv] which he is rightly critical in suggesting that this premise “was itself questionable.”[xxvi] In addition to this was the understanding of Margaret Mead and others of the Japanese as “adolescents” and “bullies,”[xxvii] and notes that from “the diagnosis of the Japanese as problem children and juvenile delinquents, it was but a small step to see them as emotionally maladjusted adolescents and, finally as a deranged race in general.”[xxviii] Dower cites numerous other “experts” of the time and their interpretations of the Japanese national character, but the overwhelming message is that the application of these theories, regardless of their validity had a major impact on the Allied war against Japan.

He follows this chapter with one with much importance in explaining the similarities in how Americans and Westerners in general viewed the Japanese in relationship to other races that they had dealt with including Blacks, Chinese, Filipinos, and American Indians. Common themes include the views of each as primitives, children and madmen and the view of the Japanese as part of the “Yellow Peril.” Of particular note is his analysis of the work of Homer Lea’s 1909 book The Valor of Ignorance and the vision of Japanese supermen which enjoyed a revival after Pearl Harbor.[xxix] Dower examines depictions of Asians in general in the Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan series of films and other racial aspects hearkening back to the “specter of Genghis Khan and the prospect that the white races “may be liquidated.”[xxx] He notes how Japanese propagandists attempted to use Allied prejudice to influence the Chinese and other Asians against the Allies[xxxi] and American blacks against whites,[xxxii] while attempting to maintain their own racial superiority which is the subject of the next section.

The chapters dealing with the Japanese view of themselves and their opponents tie together neatly. These deal with the Japanese view of themselves as the leading race in Asia and the world. Dower talks about symbols and the understanding of racial purity that motivated the Japanese from the 1800s to the rejection of Japan’s request for a declaration of “racial equity” at the League of Nations.[xxxiii] He notes the “propagation of an elaborate mythohistory in Japan and the time spent “wrestling with the question of what it really meant to be “Japanese” and how the “Yamato race” was unique among races….”[xxxiv] He notes the relationship of Shinto with whiteness and purity and connotations of how the Japanese indulged in “Caucasianization” of themselves vis-à-vis other Asians during World War Two,”[xxxv] and their emphasis on a Japanese racial worldview.[xxxvi] He also tackles the way in which the Japanese wrestled with evolution and its relationship to other racial theories contrasting books such as A History of Changing Theories about the Japanese Race and Evolution of Life with Cardinal Principles of the National Polity published by the Thought Bureau of the Ministry of Education in1937. These declared that the Japanese were “intrinsically different from the so-called citizens of Occidental countries.”[xxxvii] He also deals with the Kyoto school and the Taiwa concept.[xxxviii] In Chapter Nine Dower looks at how the Japanese viewed themselves and outsiders, in particular the characterization of Westerners as nanbanjin or barbarians and how this eventually train of thought carried through the war led to the “Anglo-American foe emerged full blown as the demonic other.”[xxxix] Dowers final chapter deals with how quickly the race hatred dissipated and genuine goodwill that developed between the Japanese and Americans after the war.[xl]

This book holds a unique place in the literature of the Pacific war. It is not a comfortable book, it is challenging. No other deals with these matters in any systemic way. If there is a weakness in Dower is that he does not, like Lepore in “In the Name of War” deal with the attitudes of soldiers and those who actually fought the war. His examples are good and go a long way in explaining the savagery with which the war was conducted, but could have been enhanced with reflections and accounts of those who fought the war and survived as well as the writings of those who did not, and the way those attitudes were reflected in different services, times and theaters during the war, including adjustments that commanders made during the war.[xli] His description of how Japanese “reluctance to surrender had meshed horrifically with Allied disinterest …in contemplating anything short of Japan’s “thoroughgoing defeat.”[xlii]

The lessons of the book are also contemporary in light of the cultural and religious differences between the West and its Moslem opponents in the current war. Possibly even more so than the war between the United States and Japan which was fought by nation states that still were signatories to international conventions, not nation states against terrorists unbound by any Western code or law or indigenous forces engaged in revolutionary war against the west such as the Taliban.[xliii] The temptation is for both sides to demonize one’s opponent while exalting one’s own way of life through official propaganda and popular media, with a result of increased viciousness and inhumanity in pursuit of ultimate victory. In today’s world with the exponential rise in the radicalization of whole people groups and the availability of weapons of mass destruction, it is possibility that the war could develop into one that is a racial as well as religious and ideological war that would make the War in the Pacific look like a schoolyard brawl.

As William Tecumseh Sherman said: “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it…”

Bibliography

Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa. Ivy Books, Published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY 1995

Dower, John W. War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.” Pantheon Books, A Division of Random House, New York, NY 1986.

Leckie, Robert. Okinawa. Penguin Books USA, New York NY, 1996

Lepore, Jill The Name of War Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York, NY 1998

Tregaskis, Richard Guadalcanal Diary Random House, New York NY 1943, Modern Library Edition, 2000.

[i] Dower, John W. War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.” Pantheon Books, A Division of Random House, New York, NY 1986. p.4
[ii] Lepore, Jill The Name of War Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York, NY 1998. Lepore’s book deals with King Phillip’s War and how that war shaped the future of American war and how it shaped the views of Indians and the English Colonists and their later American descendants both in the language used to describe it, the histories written of it and the viciousness of the war.

[iii] Ibid. p.x

[iv] Ibid. p.ix

[v] Ibid. p.x

[vi] Ibid. p.11

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid. Also see Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa. Ivy Books, Published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY 1995 Alexander notes an incident that shows a practical application of the Japanese views and the ruthlessness inflicted on their enemies, in this case prisoners in response to an American bombing raid. In 1942 the commander of the Japanese Garrison of Makin Island ordered 22 prisoners beheaded after one cheered following a bombing raid. (p.32)

[ix] An interesting point which Dower does not mention but is interesting for this study is how the Germans referred to the British and Americans as “Die gegener” (opponents) and the Soviets as “Die Feinde” (the enemy), the implication being that one die gegener was a common foe, much like an opposing team in a sport, and the other a mortal enemy, the implication of Feinde being evil, or demonic.

[x] In particular he makes note of the Japanese actions during the “Rape of Nanking,” and the 1945 sack of Manila, as well as the fire bombing of Japanese cities by the US Army Air Corps in 1945.

[xi] Ibid. Dower. p.33

[xii] Ibid. p.35

[xiii] Ibid. This is important in the fact that the Allies tended not to make much of German brutality to the Jews, Russians and other Eastern Europeans.

[xiv] Ibid. p.36.

[xv] Dower does not make this implicit comparison, but having seen both and studied the Nazi propaganda directed toward the Jews, Russians and other Slavic peoples considered to be Untermenschen (sub-humans) by the Nazis the similarities are striking.

[xvi] Ibid. pp.112-113.

[xvii] Ibid. p.113

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] In the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Israeli soldiers who previously showed no respect to any Arab fighter described their Hezbollah opponents as “soldiers and warriors.” Similar attitudes were voiced by American soldiers in Vietnam when they fought NVA regulars.

[xx] Ibid. p.123

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid. p.124

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Ibid. p.129

[xxviii] Ibid. p.143

[xxix] Ibid. P.157. Lea is interesting because he predicts a decline in the stature of the British Empire and softness of both the Americans and British as peoples. Also see John Costello in The Pacific War 1941-1945 Quill Books, New York, NY 1982 pp.31-32 notes Lea’s concerns and how they drove the American Pacific strategy until the outbreak of World War Two.

[xxx] Ibid. p.161

[xxxi] Ibid. p.169

[xxxii] Ibid. pp.174-180. This is an interesting section. One of the most interesting topics being the reaction of the NAACP’s Walter White’s book A Rising Wind published which “suggested a sense of kinship with other colored-and also oppressed-peoples of the world….he senses that the struggle of the Negro in the United States is part and parcel of the struggle against imperialism and exploitation in India, China, Burma….” (p.177-178)

[xxxiii] Ibid. p.204

[xxxiv] Ibid. p.205

[xxxv] Ibid. p.209 This is interesting when one compares the Japanese emphasis on “Pan-Asianism” and the inherent contradiction between the two.

[xxxvi] Ibid. p.211 Dower notes that the article Establishing a Japanese Racial Worldview in the monthly Bungei Shunju “clarified the Japanese character, whose basic traits were brightness, strength and uprightness. These qualities made the Japanese “the most superior race in the world.”

[xxxvii] Ibid. p.221

[xxxviii] Ibid. p.227 This was the theory of Zen Buddhism’s Suzuki Daisetsu (D.T. Suzuki) in his teaching of the struggle for the Great Harmony “Taiwa” which attempted to identify “an intuitive sense of harmony and oneness that he declared to be characteristic of Oriental thought.”

[xxxix] Ibid. p.247. Descriptions of the Allies as Barbarians, Gangsters and Demons permeated Japanese propaganda.

[xl] Ibid. Dower makes a number of observations relating to how the Japanese were able to use their own self concept to adapt to their defeat. He also notes that the Japanese were able to transfer their self concept to a peaceful orientation.

[xli] See Leckie, Robert. Okinawa. Penguin Books USA, New York NY, 1996 p.35. Leckie quotes General Ushijima “You cannot regard the enemy as on par with you,” he told his men. “You must realize that material power usually overcomes spiritual power in the present war. The enemy is clearly our superior in machines. Do not depend on your spirits overcoming this enemy. Devise combat method [sic] based on mathematical precision-then think about displaying your spiritual power.” Leckie comments: “Ushijima’s order was perhaps the most honest issued by a Japanese commander during the war. It was Bushido revised, turned upside down and inside out-but the revision had been made too late.”

[xlii] Ibid. Dower. p.37

[xliii] See Tregaskis, Richard Guadalcanal Diary Random House, New York NY 1943, Modern Library Edition, 2000. p.95. Tregaskis notes when commenting on Japanese POWs on Guadalcanal “We stared at them and they stared back at us. There was no doubt what we or they would have liked to do at that moment-if we had not remembered our code of civilization or if they had not been unarmed.”

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Iraq, ISIS and Al Qaeda: Sowing the Wind…

In recent days I have been reading the statements, speeches and documents of senior members of the Bush administration justifying the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Until it invaded Kuwait in August 1990, that regime was considered an ally against the Iranian Mullahs. But that changed when he invaded Kuwait, following an American diplomatic miscalculation which he interpreted as our acquiescence to his plans.

Of course like Paul Harvey used to say, we know “the rest of the story.” The administration of George H.W. Bush assembled a coalition and obtained the support of the United Nations Security Council to drive Saddam’s forces out of Kuwait. Interestingly enough the coalition included Sunni and Arab, Shia regimes including that of Syria. Twelve years later following the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the son-of-Bush, George W. Bush and his administration desperately tried to link the most disparate group of nations to the actions of Al Qaeda; Iran, a mortal enemy of the Sunni Al Qaeda extremists, North Korea, a rogue nation in its own right, but with no proven contacts with the terrorist group, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a rather unique regime which managed under a secular mantle to unify a disparate country well enough that hundreds of thousands of Shia Arabs gave their lives in nearly decade long war with Shia Iran.

The imbecilic decision to attack Iraq, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and the knowledge that the previous Bush administration rejected the idea of overthrowing Saddam and occupying the county was disastrous. Likewise the decision to lump the Shia regime of Iran, which realized the militant Al Qaeda threat and was working through back channels to cooperate with the United States against it, was stupid. The decisions destroyed the balance of power in the region and eliminated the one relatively, though admittedly despotic secular state that opposed both Al Qaeda and Iran ran contrary to an sane understanding of geopolitics and national security.

After eight years of struggle the United States withdrew its military forces pursuant to an agreement negotiated by the Bush administration with the Shia dominated government of Iraq. The rest is history. That government under Prime Minister Maliki did all that it could to keep itself in power while marginalizing the largely secular Sunnis who rose to drive out Al Qaeda in the Anbar Awakening helped bring about the resurgence of the Al Qaeda terrorist extremism, in its new and more lethal form of the Islamic State.

Too late the Iraqi government, Iran, the United States, Europe, the United Nations, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have woken up to the threat. ISIS now controls large chunks of strategic territory in Iraq and Syria, it is dismantling Al Qaeda and supplanting it as the terrorist organization of choice for young Jihadists around the world. The brutality and single minded devotion of of ISIS to radical Salafi and Wahhabi Islam makes Al Qaeda and the Taliban look like the Boy Scouts. It is well funded through black market oil and through rich benefactors in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia and its recruiting efforts are bringing in volunteers around the world.

Now the world is faced with a beast that need not have been created. But, the hubris of the Bush administration to destroy the long standing balance of power in the region, eliminate Saddam and alienate Iran, just when we needed both; as well as the short sighted religious devotion of Sunni- Wahhabi and Salafist fundamentalists who funded Sunni militants and terrorists with petrodollars for two decades has opened the door to Pandora’s box. The beheading of American Photo-Journalist James Foley, the killing and persecution of Christian and Yadizi minorities who have lived in Iraq for millennia and the slaughter of Shia Moslems by the ISIS Caliphate demonstrate the level to which ISIS will go to achieve their ends.

There will be no quick end to this war. It will be a war of unimaginable duration, brutality and excess because it will be a war of radically opposed ideology infused with fanatical religion and even racism? The West, too long in denial of the importance of ideology in war, despite having fought ideological, religions or racial wars will be slow to appreciate this fact. However, when it does after yet another massive terrorist strike, the media will whip Americans and Europeans into a frenzy and the gloves will come off and the battle will be joined. The war will take years, maybe decades and the effects will be felt around the world. The brutality will drive moderates to the extremes and it will become a clash of civilizations, probably only rivaled in brutality and destruction by the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Of course none of this is what I want, and I do hope that I am wrong, but I sense that it will play out this way. The details are yet to be decided, but this ideological war, the offspring of the American hubris of the second Bush administration, European greed and the shortsightedness of wealthy Sunni Arabs in promoting a dangerous brand of Islam have brought us to this point. All of us have sowed the wind and now, we will reap the whirlwind.

In such a conflict I wonder about the words Joshua Chamberlain spoke at Gettysburg almost a century and a half ago: “…men made in the image of God, marred by the hand of man, and must we say in the name of God? And where is the reckoning for such things? And who is answerable? One might almost shrink from the sound of his own voice, which had launched into the palpitating air words of order–do we call it?–fraught with such ruin. Was it God’s command that we heard, or His forgiveness that we must forever implore?”

Peace Padre Steve+

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Miscellaneous Thoughts on a Friday

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Friends, I am tired. It has been a busy week and I am going to try to rest some over the weekend as well as spend some quality time with my wife Judy.

Part of the issue with my tiredness is that I haven’t been the same since my experience over the last month or so dealing with the military mental health system. I won’t bore you with details since I have already written a lot on it, including the fact that I got some resolution, but frankly I didn’t realize just how fragile that I was still was. I had no idea that trying to get help would be so emotionally punishing. Truthfully, I have not had a good night sleep since the initial conflict with the physician and the system. The nightmares, terrors and restlessness are all back. Hopefully in a few weeks or months things will settle out again.

On the positive side I was provided new hearing aids which are quite remarkable in their capabilities and are already helping me to understand speech better. For those that don’t know I hear noise just great. I have almost no loss of that ability. However, since Iraq I suffer unending tinnitus and my speech discrimination, a neurological function is in the third percentile, meaning that 97% of people understand speech better than me. So I am grateful for the hearing aids, as Judy, who was becoming ever more frustrated with me not understanding her or others. The ironic thing is that she has been severely hard of hearing her whole life and has a 77% hearing loss, but she usually understands speech better than me. a funny thing did happen yesterday. I was asked by a Charismatic Christian about praying from my hearing. While I appreciate that and I am touched by such sincere desires to help, it would be a shame if the government wasted over 5,000 on the hearing aids that are working so well.

Likewise, it looks like I have been invited to speak at the Military Officers Association of America conference in Washington DC in September on the topic of being a care giver to those suffering from PTSD while suffering from it myself. That should be interesting. In a way it is something that I hope to do on a regular basis once I retire from the military.

I have been writing a lot about Gettysburg and each thing that I write helps bring me a better understanding of the battle, but also the people, as well as the culture and philosophic ideas that had such an influence on those times. So you can expect that as I write new material and revise old material that I will share them with you here.

Finally as to current events. I am troubled by the events in Ferguson Missouri, especially many of the surprisingly racist reactions by “white America.” Since I wrote about that recently as well, I won’t go back into it.

The situation in Iraq with the rise of ISIS and its “Caliphate” has me greatly concerned. This is not a normal terrorist organization, it is Al Qaeda on steroids. The Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hegel, sounded a clear warning in the wake of the public execution of  American photo journalist James Foley and threats to bring their war to the United States and the west. I do not think that Secretary Hegel, a very circumspect man would make such an announcement if there was no real threat. The problem is that back in 2003 the Bush Administration sewed the wind in Iraq and left a very fragile and unstable state, whose leaders failed their people, and now we are reaping the whirlwind. We want peace, I know I think I speak for everyone, but the rise of ISIS with its apocalyptic vision, vast financial resources, international reach and success on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq is drawing radicalized Moslems to it’s black banner around the world. Because of this I expect that we are in for a long hard fight, and that our new opponent will cause us grave damage.

That being said, I fear for civil liberties in the wake of any attack, and I especially fear that, if something bad happens in the United States, that we will react not just against the culprits; but innocent, loyal and patriotic Americans of Moslem or Arab descent or because they look like the bad guys, or because they share the Islamic religion. Since I know a good number of such people I worry. We can be quite a xenophobic people when aroused, and our quite often “yellow journalism” and jingoistic politicians and preachers stir the cauldron of hatred to the point of paranoid insanity. Our history is colored by such xenophobia.

Finally, the news that the Russians may be attacking in the Ukraine is seriously bad news, which we all, Americans and Europeans need to wake up to.

So I close this Friday sharing my sense of foreboding even while I hope and pray for peace and justice.

Peace and have a wonderful weekend.

Padre Steve+

 

 

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Winston Churchill, Turkey and the High Cost of Two Dreadnoughts

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One of the more interesting and overlooked factors in the days leading up to the First World War, which had significant ramifications in the Middle East involved Winston Churchill. Churchill was serving as First Lord of the Admiralty and made a decision which ensured the Ottoman Empire would be pushed into an alliance with Germany.

For many years Britain had been the chief supplier of ships for the Ottoman Navy. In fact in the years leading up to World War One the Ottomans had purchased over 40 ships from Great Britain and on August 2nd 1914 was expecting to take delivery of two, extremely modern Dreadnoughts, the Sultan Osman I and the Reshadieh. The Sultan Osman was armed with fourteen 12” guns, the Reshadieh with ten 13” guns, making them the equal or superior to most battleships afloat. The Turkish Government had paid over 4 billion Pounds for the ships and made the final payment on August 2nd shortly before the Turkish Captain and 500 crew members were to come aboard for a ceremony formally handing over the ship to the Turkish Navy.

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HMS Agincourt 

Much of the money the Turks used to pay for the ships came from the donations of ordinary Turkish citizens. Money came from taverns, from cafes, schools, Mosques and markets. Those that donated were awarded a commemorative medal, the ships were the pride of Turkey and the empire. The nation awaited the delivery of the ships which would ensure the superiority of the Turkish Navy against its traditional foe, Russia.

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HMS Erin

As War approached Churchill began to prepare, keeping many of his plans and actions even from the government. Less than an hour before the ceremony Churchill ordered the ships seized and and the Royal Navy kept the Turkish Captain and crew locked aboard a nearby transport. The Turkish Captain later wrote:

“… We paid the last installment (700.000 Turkish liras). The manufacturer and we agreed on that the ships would be hand over on 2 August 1914. Nevertheless, after we made our payment and half an hour before the ceremony, the British declared that they have requisitioned the ships… Although we have protested, nobody paid attention.”

Churchill had gained two modern Dreadnoughts for the Royal Navy, and the British shipyards kept the money, the Turks were never compensated for the loss. The ships were renamed HMS Agincourt and HMS Erin. Both served throughout the war and at the Battle of Jutland, and bother were scrapped in the early 1920s due to the restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaty.

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SMS Goeben

But in the process whereby the British gained the ships, ensured that Turkey would ally itself with Germany. The positive effects were mitigated by the Germans providing the very modern dreadnought type  Molkte Class Battlecruiser Goeben and Light Cruiser Breslau to the Turks, giving them the edge over the Russians. Breslau was mined and sunk in 1918 but Goeben served in the Turkish Navy as the Yavuz Sultan Selim until she was decommissioned in 1954, and scrapped in 1973.

Likewise, Churchill’s decision meant that when Turkey entered the war that the strategically important Bosporus strait which was Russia’s only year round access to foreign shipping was closed, keeping Britain and France from being able to supply their Russian ally. The ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, launched by Churchill was the attempt to break the Turkish stranglehold, and the costly failure of that operation helped ensure the defeat of Russia and the overthrow of the Czar..

In the long term it had affects that we are still feeling the today. The entry or Turkey into the war and the subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire was the catalyst for the arbitrary borders drawn by the allies across the Middle East.

Had Turkey remained neutral throughout the war, or even sided with the allies the course of history might be far different. We don’t know, but the Ottoman Empire might have endured or it might have peacefully morphed into something different.

Churchill’s decision turned out to be one of the more important, and less known events before the war broke out, and certainly we still feel the ramifications today. Actions have consequences, and sometimes what seems expedient to give a tactical edge, sometimes has far reaching strategic consequences. Consequences that sometimes linger for generations.

Peace

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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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, middle east, News and current events, PTSD

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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