Category Archives: News and current events

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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Filed under faith, Loose thoughts and musings, middle east, News and current events, PTSD

The Unfolding of Miscalculations

 

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“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.” Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August

It is now late July of 2014 and for the past month I have been reading about the events in Europe of 100 years ago, a time when the leaders of Europe were hurtling into a war which would change the world forever and the effects of which redound to our day. As I read each book I am always amazed at the hubris, vanity, ignorance and incompetence of the monarchs, prime ministers, foreign ministers and diplomats and military leaders. Men who managed to miscalculate their way into a war that was far larger, longer, destructive and earth shaking than most imagined at the time. As Barbara Tuchman wrote “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.”

Yes there were some who knew that a war would be longer, larger and more destructive than most expected, they were either ignored, or in the case of Field Marshal von Molkte of Germany and Joffre of France ignored their own predictions of a long costly war “made any allowance in their plans for the war of attrition which they both foresaw.” Lord Kitchener of Britain, who had no part in his nation’s planning for war and who was recalled to become War Minister on August 4th 1914 was the only military leader to act on his predictions. He predicted to a colleague that the war would last three years, but added that it might last longer, but “three years will do to begin with. A nation like Germany, after having forced the issue, will only give in after it is beaten to the ground. That will take a very long time. No one living knows.”

Of course few people, especially leaders learn from history, including Americans. In November 2002 Donald Rumsfeld predicted that the coming U.S. invasion of Iraq would “Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that….It won’t be a World War III.” Of course, he and those who led the United States into war were incredibly wrong, the American involvement lasted 8 years, cost about 4500 U.S. military dead and about 40,000 wounded and when all costs are factored in will have cost the nation trillions of dollars. It also helped bring into existence the group known as ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which now controls vast swaths of Iraq and Syria and whose conquests may drag the United States back in to the Iraq conflagration, maybe even in concert with Iran. It may not be a “world war” but threatens to become global as the influence of ISIL is spreading to other parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

There are also rumblings of war coming from Russia and the Ukraine, a conflict that has now claimed nearly 300 people who had no stake in it, the passengers and crew of Malaysia Air Flight 17, shot down by pro-Russian insurgents with a missile very probably supplied by Russia. Both Russia and Ukraine have begun limited mobilization of their militaries. While one would want to believe that neither Russia or Ukraine, or for that matter Europe or the United States has an interest in war one can never be sure. As Tuchman wrote “One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.”

In the weeks leading to the First World War, some nations were determined on war, others thrust into it by their perceived military interests and still others because they ignored the danger of the situation until it was too late. In all cases their actions and inaction led to disaster.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, history, News and current events, world war one

We Hold These Truths…

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Last night I re-read the Declaration of Independence. I do this about every time this year. It is not a long read, but quite profound. As I read again I reflected on the beginning of the second sentence of that document.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” When penned by Thomas Jefferson and ratified by the Continental Congress in July 1776 these words, which begin the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence announced something unimaginable to the world, most of which labored under the rule of ensconced monarchies, nobilities and state religions, where your social status and religious affiliation counted more than anything else, places where few commoners had any hope of social advancement, no matter what their talent, ability or genius.

They were a clarion call of equality and revolutionary in their impact, not only in the American colonies but around the world. In the coming years people around the world would look to those words as they sought to free themselves from oppressive governments and systems where the vast majority of people had few rights, and in fact no equality existed.

But the liberty and equality stated in the Declaration of Independence did not extend to all in the United States, or in its territories as it expanded westward, and the inequity eventually brought on a great civil war.

Eighty seven years after those words were published the nation was divided, in the midst of a great civil war, a climactic battle having just been fought at Gettysburg. A few months later President Abraham Lincoln penned one of the most insightful and influential documents ever written, the Gettysburg Address.

One thing that our founders overlooked was that even while proclaiming equality, they later enshrined that one group of people, African slaves were not equal, in fact they only counted as three fifths of a person. Eventually, many states on their own abolished slavery, but because of the invention of the Cotton Gin slavery became even more fully entrenched in the American South, when an oligarchy of land and slave owners held immense power, where nearly half of the population was enslaved and where even poor whites had few rights and little recourse to justice.

After the Dred Scott decision of 1857 which declared that African Americans, no matter if they were slave or free could be American Citizens and had no standing to sue in Federal courts. Scott had sued to gain his family’s freedom after his owner refused to allow him to purchase it, because they were in a territory where slavery was but even more importantly held that the Missouri Compromise of 1824 which had prohibited the introduction of Slavery into Federal territories was unconstitutional and that the Federal government had no right to limit slavery in territories acquired after the creation of the United States. Chief Justice Roger Taney writing for the majority wrote that all African Americans were viewed by the authors of the Constitution as:

“beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Taney held that Article V of the Constitution barred any law that would deprive a slave owner of his “property” on entrance into free states or territories. and enunciated a string of negative effects, or “parade of horribles” that would derive if Scott’s petition for freedom was granted. His declaration is amazing in its ignorance and prejudice. Taney wrote:

“It would give to persons of the negro race, …the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, …to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased …the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.”

The two dissenting Justices, Curtis and McLain disagreed with the proposition that the writers of the Constitution believed as Taney and the majority believed, noting that at the time of the ratification of the Constitution that blacks could vote in five of the thirteen states, making them citizens, not just of those states but the United States. Referring to the Declaration of Independence in 1854 Lincoln wrote: “the standard maxim of free society …constantly spreading and deepening its influence,” ultimately applicable “to peoples of all colors everywhere.”

However, much to the concern of slave holders and the South, the decision energized the abolitionist movement who believed that now no black, even those with a long history of being Freed Men living in non-slave states could be claimed as property by those claiming to be former owners, and that state laws which gave blacks equal rights and citizenship could be overturned. Lincoln again referring to the Declaration wrote of the Dred Scott decision:

“to aid in making the bondage of the Negro universal and eternal….All the powers of the earth seem rapidly combining against him. Mammon is after him; ambition follows, and philosophy follows, and the theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his prison house;…One after another they have closed the heavy doors upon him…and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.”

Eventually the tensions led to the election of Lincoln along sectional lines and the immediate secession of seven southern states and the establishment of the Confederacy. British military historian and theorist Major General J.F.C. Fuller wrote that the war was “not between two antagonistic political parties, but a struggle to the death between two societies, each championing a different civilization…”

The Confederate Vice President, Alexander Stephens openly proclaimed that the inequity of African Americans was foundational to the Confederacy in his Cornerstone speech of 1861, if there are any doubters about the “rights” the leaders of the Southern States longed to preserve in their secession from the Union, Stephen’s words are all to clear in their intent:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address acknowledged what everyone had known, but few, him included in the North were willing to say in 1861:

“One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it….”

Even so it took time for the abolition of slavery to be acknowledged as a major concern by the Federal government, it was not until 1862 after Lee’s failed invasion of Maryland and the Battle of Antietam that Lincoln published the Emancipation Proclamation, and that only applied to Confederate territories.

But in 1863 after Gettysburg Lincoln was asked to speak a “few words” at the dedication of the Soldiers’ cemetery. Lincoln’s words focused the issue of the war in relation to those first words of the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, the understanding that all men are created equal.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Unfortunately, the issue of equality has languished in our political debates. Equality is the sister of and the guarantor of the individual liberties enunciated in the Declaration. However because of human nature always more vulnerable to those that would attempt to enshrine their personal liberty over others, or attempt to use the courts and Constitution to deprive others of the rights that they themselves enjoy, or to enshrine their place in society above others. In some cases this is about race, sometimes religion, sometimes about gender and even sexual orientation. Likewise there are those that would try to roll back the rights of others, as those who seek to disenfranchise the poor and minorities, particularly African Americans at the ballot box.

That is why it is important, even as we celebrate and protect individual liberties that we also seek to fight for the equality of all citizens, irrespective of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. The Declaration of Independence is our guide for this as Jefferson so eloquently wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”

Have a happy 4th of July and please remember that unless liberty is liberty for all then it is really only liberty for some; those of great economic power and influence; or who happen to be the right race, religion, gender or sexual preference.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Wrong Turn, a Holy Cause and Two Bullets: The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

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“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.” Barbara Tuchman

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was eager to leave Sarajevo. He had opposed the empire’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina when it occurred in 1908 as a “needless provocation of the South Slavs” and their Russian supporters, he knew that the action was “a diplomatic time bomb that could go off at any time.” He had come to Bosnia to help win over the loyalty of the resentful populace and in a sense to consecrate Austrian rule over Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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Franz Ferdinand 

The visit included military maneuvers in the western part of the province away from Serbia to be less provocative, as well as motorcades and official visits to political officials and cultural venues. The Archduke brought with him his beloved wife, Sophie. His marriage to her was looked upon with scorn by hie father Emperor Franz Josef I and the royal family. Sophie, though a child of obscure Czech nobility she and her family were too impoverished for the Hapsburgs, likewise the relationship was scandalous because Sophie had been the lady in waiting to the Hapsburg archduchess who Franz was supposed to marry. He was forced to sign an “Oath of Renunciation” in which he declared that their children would be excluded from imperial succession.

Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo

 

Last Meeting with Sarajevo Mayor and Religious leaders 

The final day of the royal visit to the region was Sunday June 28th. The date coincided with the signature of the oath of renunciation as well as a Serbian holy day, the anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389. In that battle the Turks had destroyed independent Serbia. However, that it was and still considered a symbol of national pride and resistance for Serbians, as a Serbia knight had killed Ottoman Sultan Murad I during the battle. Likewise, June 28th 1914 was the celebration of St Vitus day, or Vidovdan, the day set aside by Serbian government and religious authorities as consecrated to all those who sacrificed their lives for the faith and the fatherland. For Serbian radials and nationalists the establishment of a Greater Serbia and the liberation of Bosnia from Austria was a holy cause, that they were willing to give their lives to achieve.

The visit and itinerary had been planned and published for months, and some Serbs began planning to assassinate the Archduke. Members of the militant-terrorist group the Black Hand and its Bosnian offshoot Narodna Odbrana assisted by Serbian military officers developed plans assisted three conspirators, Gavrilo Princip, Nedjelko Chabrinovitch and Trifko Grabezh with travel, weapons and training to accomplish their mission. Once across the border and in Bosnia they linked up with other conspirators where they planned the assassination attempt.

By the final night Franz was ready to leave, and was heard to say “thank God this Bosnian trip is over.” He would have left with the Austrian Chief of the General Staff Conrad von Hotzendorf, but stayed because he was “warned that breaking off the Sunday program would damage Austria’s prestige in Bosnia.”

The next morning was uneventful until the Archduke’s motorcade was attacked by a local conspirator who threw a bomb which deflected off the Archduke and his car and blew up under the next car in the motorcade at 10 a.m. The Archduke stopped to check on the wounded and proceeded to city hall mayor and Christian, Moslem and Jewish religious leaders. It was an awkward meeting considering the attempt on his life and following it, he and his party left first to visit the military hospital where the wounded had been taken and then to a final luncheon, a last minute change to the itinerary, skipping a museum visit. However, the word of the route change did not reach the first two vehicles made a wrong turn, and in the confusion as the motorcade attempted to reverse course the Archduke’s vehicle stopped for a few seconds, not more than 8 feet from Princip just after 11 a.m. The Bosnia was surprised by the sudden opportunity and quickly fired two shots from his Browning FN Model 1910 pistol, one which struck Franz in the neck and the other which struck Sophie in the abdomen and by 11:30 both were dead.

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Gavrilo Princip after his arrest

In the days and weeks that followed the nations of Europe, each for their own reasons negotiated, threatened and finally mobilized for war, a war that would destroy the political order of Europe that had existed since the end of the Napoleonic wars, kill nearly 17 million people and wound 20 million more. The peace that followed was fraught with peril and followed by a second even more destructive world war in which and estimated 50 to 80 million people were killed, and millions more wounded.

The consequences of those wars, and the Cold War that followed are with us even today. Among the empires that died in the First World War was the Ottoman Empire, whose remains were divided between the English and French in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. That agreement’s arbitrary and indiscriminate redrawing of national boundaries is a large part of the reason for the current unrest in the Middle East, especially the civil war in Syria and the Sunni-Shia war in Iraq.

A wrong turn and two bullets, followed by the and the rest is a century of war, desolation and carnage. Otto von Bismarck had said that “If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.” The results of the war caused by “some silly thing in the Balkans” are still felt, including the psychological and spiritual effects on peoples and nations. Barbara Tuchman wrote of the period after the First World War: “An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914-18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.”

It is sobering to think and reflect on how a wrong turn, a holy cause and two bullets can bring about so much death, destruction and instability.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inshallah (إن شاء الله)

Padre Steve+

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The Results of Ignoring History: The Implosion of Iraq

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Better Times: With the Bedouin in December 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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British Troops enter Baghdad 1919

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lawrence wrote in 1920:

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

We should listen to him.

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Elton John “Oceans Away”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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