A New Birth of Freedom and its True Meaning: The Gettysburg Address


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The weekend before Donald Trump was elected President I was at Gettysburg with my students from the Staff College. We finished our staff ride at the Soldier’s Cemetery where Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. My practice as always was to close the staff ride by reading his address. I always get a bit choked up when I read it because I realize just how important what he said was then, and still is today. That Sunday it was as if I saw the Confederate hordes advancing upon Cemetery Ridge and the fate of the country hanging in the balance.

I had already seen the assaults on our Republic and Constitution by Donald Trump and his supporters, and that particular day I was full of dread. I knew that if Trump won, and his supporters on the Alt-Right have their way, our system of government will be destroyed, the civil liberties that the men who died at Gettysburg to establish, would be curtailed or even rolled back. I feared, and it turns out quite rightly, that if Trump won, that civil rights would be threatened or rolled back, that White Nationalists would be emboldened, and racist violence and anti-Semitic attacks would increase exponentially. I would have preferred to be wrong, but I was right. Now we are in the midst of impeachment proceedings

In November of 1863 Abraham Lincoln was sick when when he traveled by train from Washington DC to Gettysburg. When Lincoln delivered the address, he was suffering from what was mostly likely a mild form of Smallpox. Thus the tenor, simplicity and philosophical depth of his address are even more remarkable. It is a speech given in the manner of Winston Churchill’s “Blood sweat toil and tears” address to Parliament upon his appointment as Prime Minister in May, 1940. Likewise it echoes the Transcendentalist understanding of the Declaration of Independence as a “test for all other things.”

Many people in the United States and Europe did not agree with Lincoln’s restatement of the founding premise of the Declaration of Independence. Opponents argued that no nation found on such principles could long survive. The more reactionary European subscribers of Romanticism ridiculed the “idea that a nation could be founded on a proposition….and they were not reluctant to point to the Civil War as proof that attempting to build a government around something as bloodless and logical as a proposition was futile.” [1]

As late as 1848, the absolute monarchies of Europe had fought against and put down with force revolutionary movements attempting to imitate the American experiment. Many of the revolutionaries from Germany, Poland, and other nations fled to the United States, where 15 years later, clad in the Blue of the United States Army fought to preserve that experiment on the battlefields of the American Civil War, including Gettysburg.

But Lincoln disagreed with the conservative reactionaries of Europe, or the American Slave owning aristocracy. He believed that Americans would fight to defend that proposition. He believed that the “sacrifices of Gettysburg, Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Chancellorsville, and a hundred other places demonstrated otherwise, that men would die rather than to lose hold of that proposition. Reflecting on that dedication, the living should themselves experience a new birth of freedom, a determination- and he drove his point home with a deliberate evocation of the great Whig orator Daniel Webster- “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” [2]

The Unitarian pastor, abolitionist, and leading Transcendentalist thinker, Theodore Parker wrote:

“Our national ideal out-travels our experience, and all experience. We began our national career by setting all history at defiance – for that said, “A republic on a large scale cannot exist.” Our progress since that has shown that we were right in refusing to be limited by the past. The practical ideas of the nation are transcendent, not empirical. Human history could not justify the Declaration of Independence and its large statements of the new idea: the nation went beyond human history and appealed to human nature.” [3]

Lincoln’s address echoes the thought of historian George Bancroft, who wrote of the Declaration:

“The bill of rights which it promulgates is of rights that are older than human institutions, and spring from the eternal justice…. The heart of Jefferson in writing the Declaration, and of Congress in adopting it, beat for all humanity; the assertion of right was made for the entire world of mankind and all coming generations, without any exceptions whatsoever.” [4]

Theodore Parker’s words also prefigured an idea that Lincoln used in his address. Parker, like Lincoln believed that: “the American Revolution, with American history since, is an attempt to prove by experience this transcendental proposition, to organize the transcendental idea of politics. The ideal demands for its organization a democracy- a government of all, for all, and by all…” [5]

Following a train trip to Gettysburg and an overnight stay, Lincoln delivered these immortal words on that November afternoon:

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 cannot 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.[6]

In a time where many are wearied by the foibles and follies of our politicians, especially a man as singularity ill-equipped and ill-tempered as Donald Trump, Lincoln’s words still matter. Since Trump’s election he, and his supporters, many of whom are White Nationalists, and authoritarians have moved on many fronts to curtail civil rights and re-establish White rule in a way unseen since secession, and Jim Crow. So far our institutions have held, but there is no guarantee that they will. In such an environment, one has to wonder if our very form of government can survive.

But it is important that they do, and despite our weariness, we need to continue to fight for those ideals, even when the world seems to be closing in around us as it must have seemed following Lee’s initial success on the first day of battle at Gettysburg.

Dr. Allen Guelzo, Professor of Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College wrote in the New York Times:

“The genius of the address thus lay not in its language or in its brevity (virtues though these were), but in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies, and in the reminder that democracy’s survival rested ultimately in the hands of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for. We could use that reminder again today.” [7]

Dr. Guelzo is quite correct. Many people in this country and around the world are having grave doubts about our democracy. I wonder myself, but I am an optimist, and despite my doubts, I have to believe that we will eventually recover.

Admittedly, that is an act of faith based on our historical resiliency, and ability to overcome the stupidity of politicians, pundits and preacher, including the hate filled message of Donald Trump and his White Supremacist supporters, especially supposedly “conservative ” Christians. That doesn’t mean that I am not afraid for our future, or that despite my belief that our institutions will hold. Historian, Timothy Snyder correctly noted:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

The amazing thing during the Civil War was that in spite of everything, the Union survived. Lincoln was a big part of that. His steady leadership and unfailing resolve help see the Republic through manifold disasters.

But, it was the men who left lives of comfort and security to defend the sacred principles of the Declaration, like Joshua Chamberlain, and many others who brought about that victory. Throughout the war, even to the end Southern political leaders failed to understand that Union men would fight and die for an ideal, something greater than themselves, the preservation of the Union and the freedom of an enslaved race. For those men that volunteered to serve, the war was not about personal gain, loot or land, it was about something greater. It was about freedom, and when we finally realize this fact, and take up the cause that they fought and died for, then maybe, just maybe, we can contemplate the real meaning of “that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.d. [8]

Now, I for one do not think that we are currently living up to the ideals enunciated by Lincoln on that day at Gettysburg. I can understand the cynicism disillusionment of Americans, as well as those around the world who have for over 200 years looked to us and our system as a “city set on a hill.” That being said, when I read these words and walk the hallowed ground of Gettysburg, I am again a believer. I believe that we can realize the ideal, even in our lifetime should we decide to again believe in that proposition and be willing to fight, or even die for it. Of course, it is quite possible that we will not measure up to the example set by Lincoln and the men who fought for the Union at Gettysburg. If we don’t, The blame will be upon all of us.

So, have a great day and please stop to think about how important Lincoln’s words remain as we wait to see what the next day of Trump’s America brings. This is important because Trump and his supporters respect tyrants like King George III, as his supporters like Attorney General William Barr have said that the Colonialists revolted against the Parliament, not the King. To make that argument one has to ignore the Declaration of Independence in its entirety and declare that Trump is King, and that his word is law.

That cannot be allowed to happen, and I will be damned if I allow that happen without speaking out.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Notes

[1] Ibid. Guelzo. Fateful Lightening p.409

[2] Ibid. Guelzo. Fateful Lightening p.408

[3] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.110

[4] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.105

[5] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.105

[6] Lincoln, Abraham The Gettysburg Address the Bliss Copy retrieved from http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm

[7] Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln’s Sound Bite: Have Faith in DemocracyNew York Time Opinionator, November 17th 2013 retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/lincolns-sound-bite-have-faith-in-democracy/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0 July 18th 2014

[8] Ibid. McPherson This Hallowed Ground p.13

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“If Certain Acts and Violations of Treaties are Crimes, They are Crimes…” Trump Pardons Convicted War Criminals


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A day after President Trump pardoned three convicted American war criminals against the strong objections of the Department of Defense and the military services. With one stroke he took back military justice to the day when President Richard Nixon for all practical purposes overturned the military Justice system’s conviction of Lieutenant William Calley for the My Lai massacre by commuting his sentence to house arrest. It took decades for the United States Army to recover from the stain of what it had done in Vietnam, and the Presidency years to recover from the stain of Richard Nixon.
This happened during a week where I have been doing a lot of reading on the Japanese War Crimes during the Second World War, reviewing my previous studies about the Nazi War Crimes, and watching a mini-series about the Tokyo War Crimes Trials.
I am appalled at the President’s despicable defense and pardoned three men convicted of war crimes by U.S. military courts. Truth matters, law matters, and justice matters.

These pardons have the potential release unprecedented evil by otherwise honorable men who either believer that they are just following orders or approved by God through the words of their leader.

I take this very seriously. War Crimes are war crime whether committed by Nazis, Communists, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, or American soldiers. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson who organized the Nuremberg Trials and prosecuted the leading Nazis noted before the trials began:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.” Justice Robert Jackson International Conference on Military Trials, London, 1945, Dept. of State Pub.No. 3080 (1949), p.330.

The fact that the United States Congress has never approved U.S. membership in the International Criminal Court means that we do not take war crimes seriously if they are committed by our soldiers. We make a mockery of justice, and even when our own military seeks justice, now the President is overturning the our military justice system to set convicted war criminals free. The President has dishonored the country and the military that is sworn to obey the law and the Constitution.

That is what it comes down to. How does one speak for human rights and against war crimes and crimes against humanity, yet watch the President of the United States make a mockery of justice.
Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Public Impeachment Hearings: Damning But Not a Sure Thing

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This week we witnessed something that hasn’t been seen since I was in 9th grade, televised public impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives, and we saw the President’s defense shredded as witnesses, all members of the State Department gave damning testimony without a creditable defense, either by his Counsel, or by House Republicans. To make matters worse, the President began tweeting attacks against the woman he had appointed as Ambassador to the Ukraine, which only could be construed as witness intimidation.

Unfortunately for the President he ran into a Congressman who is an experienced and sharp prosecuting attorney, Representative Adam Schiff of California. Instead of letting the President’s unhinged Twitter assaults go, Schiff quoted them in real time allowing the former ambassador the chance to rebut them in real time.


It was something that we will probably never see again because no future President would lack the self control to avoid further incriminating him or herself and adding charges against themselves. But this is Donald Trump, a pathological narcissist who cannot shut his mouth to save himself. Today in real time he threatened and attempted to intimidate former Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch in real time, something that Congressman Schiff was quick to point out and read those tweets within seconds during the hearing. This is something that has never happened before.

What happens next? More hearings, both public and secret, and then a vote on whether to move to an impeachment trial.

After that the drama moves to the Senate. In normal times, Senators like Barry Goldwater would go to the President and demand he resign in the face of certain conviction, as he and others told Richard Nixon in August 1974. but these are not normal times. Instead of principled men like Goldwater the GOP Senate is stocked with spineless men without any ethics who will only break from supporting Trump if their constituents show a clear indication to do so or face defeat in their respective Senate races in 2020.

I for one do not know how it will end, but I do know that the President is not coming across well.

So, until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Against Insurmountable Odds: The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, part Two

 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night I wrote about the opening engagement of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Despite the heroic battle to protect the Marines on Guadalcanal I the early morning hours of November 13th, the situation in the White House was akin to the setbacks at Omaha Beach a year and a half later. The temptation to withdraw the Marines who had already won a foothold on the island and who had withstood several major Japanese assaults was strong, but time played a role that superseded American political realities.

                                                        IJN Kinugusa 
On the morning of the 13th, following the defeat of Rear Admiral Hiraoki Abe’s Force, Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo pressed home the attack. On the 13th, his transport force, carrying the Imperial Army 38th Division, protected by the destroyers of Rear Admiral Gunichi Mikawa ran the gauntlet of  Marine Corps, Navy, and Army Air Force aircraft stationed at Henderson Field which according to the Japanese plan should have been rendered inoperative on the night of the 12th and 13th. Mikawa pressed ahead despite heavy losses and though losing seven of the eleven transports landed a sizable number of troops on Guadalcanal despite losing most of their supplies and equipment.

As the sun set on the night of the 13th another bombardment Force under Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura came in under the cover of darkness to fire 500 eight inch shells at the airfield. Damage was moderate, some aircraft were destroyed, but Henderson Field Remained in action, its aircraft continuing to inflict heavy casualties of the Japanese landing forces, and their escorts, including the heavy cruisers Kinugusa, Maya, Chokai, and Suzuya, light cruisers Isuzu and Tenryu, and six destroyers. Mikawa sent Maya and Suzuya to shell Henderson Field while his other ships attempted to screen the transports. In the following action seven of the eleven transports were sunk, with many of their troops transferred to destroyers which delivered them to Guadalcanal without most of their supplies and equipment. During his withdraw, most of Mikawa’s ships were damaged by aircraft from Henderson Field, including Kinugusa which was mortally wounded by Marine and Navy aircraft from Henderson Field and USS Enterprise. 

                                             IJN Battleship Kirishima 

Despite the losses and under pressure from Tokyo to retake the Guadalcanal, Admiral Yamamoto ordered Admiral Kondo, with a reconstructed bombardment Force to attack Henderson Field. That task force was centered on the battleship Kirishima, though Kondo’s flagship was the heavy cruiser Atago. This force was more powerful than Abe’s, with one battleship, 2 heavy and 2 light cruisers as well as nine destroyers.


By now the Americans were rushing to get every available ship to Guadalcanal, despite the doubts that it could hold. Against the advice of many officers, Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey directed the battleships USS Washington and South Dakota, along with the destroyers USS Preston, Walke, Benham, and Gwin none of which had operated together before until that night. The battleships were selected because nothing else was available, the spdestroyers, each because they had more fuel. They were under the command of Rear Admiral Willis Lee aboard Washington.


Early in the morning of the 15th the task forces of Kondo and Lee joined battle. The US destroyers, operating in the van succeeded in their task of screening the battleships at heavy loss to themselves. Preston, Walke, and Benham were sunk or mortally wounded. The South Dakota was put out of the action by a mistake by her Chief Engineer coupled with accurate Japanese gunfire. Now operating alone and undetected, Washington opened fire on Kirishima hitting her with between 9 and 20 16” shells. Mortally wounded Kirishima became the second battleship lost by the Imperial Navy in the war. Kondo retreated, and the following morning the four surviving transports beaches themselves under air attack from Henderson Field.

  •                       Washington Firing and Broadside at Kirishima 

    From that point on Japanese missions were limited to resupply of forced on Guadalcanal or their evacuation. Many other bloody battles remained to be fought, it after November 15th 1942, the issue of who should control Guadalcanal was not no longer in doubt.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

 

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40 Minutes of Hell: The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, Part One


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the very early morning hours of November 13th 1942, one of the most intense short range battles in modern naval history was fought in the waters between Guadalcanal and Savo Island. Fourteen ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy, including the battleships Hiei and Kirishima supported by the light cruiser Nagara and eleven destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Hiraoki Abe were sent on a mission to destroy the Marine air base, Henderson Field on Guadalcanal in order to ensure the safety of a convoy carrying the soldiers of the 38th division of the Imperial Japanese Army, whose mission was to land than recover the island for the Japanese.

Rear  Hiraoki  Abe  (above)  and  Daniel  Callaghan  (below)

The Americans, whose intelligence code-breakers had surmised Japanese intentions and in response Admiral Richmond Turner gathered a force of two heavy and five light cruisers, the USS San Francisco, USS Portland, USS Helena, USS Atlanta, and the USS Juneau and eight destroyers. He placed Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan in command, although Rear Admiral Norman Scott aboard Atlanta was slightly junior but more experienced in fighting the Japanese at Guadalcanal, having led a US task force to victory at the Battle of Cape Esperance just a month earlier.

                                            Rear Admiral Norman Scott

Adding to the US difficulties was that the force, hastily cobbled together had never operated before as a unit, and Callaghan choose San Francisco, which had previously commanded as his flagship, despite her lack of the latest surface search radar. Likewise, he placed the five ships with it at the rear of his formation, and did not issue a battle plan for his task force. In doing so he lost the element of surprise as Abe had no knowledge of a US task force off Guadalcanal.

               San Francisco returns to Pearl Harbor, December 1942 under Golden Gate Bridge

As night gathered on the 12th of November, Abe steamed southeast down the slot and south of Savo Island, in an unwieldy formation, and his battleships piled high with special fragmentation shells designed to maximize destruction of shore targets and airfields but which were of little use against surface ships. Callaghan steamed northeast through Ironbottom Sound to intercept in a column formation with four destroyers in the van, followed by his five cruisers, and then his other four destroyers. According to Naval historian Samuel Elliott Morrison, the formation was chosen because it had worked for Scott at Cape Esperance, but he failed to take advantage of his advantage in radar and left the cruiser Helena, and the four destroyers with the latest radar in the rear of his formation.

Battleship IJN Hiei (above) USS Helena (below)

 


At 0124 hours radarmen aboard Helena picked up the Japanese Force at 27,000 and 32,000 yards and notified Callaghan. Instead of moving into a position to take the Japanese by a surprise gunfire and torpedo attack Callaghan decided to go directly at the Japanese, sacrificing his advantage in surprise and radar in favor of a short range melee.


USS Laffey

Approaching each other at a combined forty knots the range closed rapidly until at 0141 the destroyer USS Cushing had to make a sharp turn to starboard to avoid a collision with the leading Japanese destroyers, the result was a near pile up for which which Callaghan demanded answers. The Captain of Atlanta explained his maneuvers by radioing Callaghan, “avoiding our destroyers.” 
Within seconds the battle began. The lead US destroyers, Cushing, Laffey, Sterrett, and O’Bannon along with Atlanta engaging the lead Japanese destroyers, Nagara and Hiei.


The result was chaos. Laffey engaged Hiei at a range of 20 feet, inflicting damage and killing key members of Abe’s staff and Hiei’s senior officers. Yet it was another four minutes before Callaghan gave the order to open fire. In the mean time Atlanta was illuminated by Japanese searchlights and opened a murderous fire on the Japanese destroyer Akatzuki. However, the Japanese destroyer’s sacrifice was not in vain as other Japanese ships blasted Atlanta with gunfire and torpedoes, and putting her out of action. Cushing and Laffey were mortally wounded during the initial minutes of the action and both forces continued to close one another, the battle developing into a series of individual fights with each ship searching for targets as well as being targeted by the enemy.
San Francisco was smashed by Japanese shells, including those from the battleships.

Illustration of the Battle by Life Magazine

The barrage killed Admiral Callaghan, his staff, as well as the Commanding Officer and Executive officer of the ship. But for the actions of her crew led by her Chief Engineer  LCDR Bruce McCandless, and Gunnery officer LCDR Wilborne the ship might have been lost. Instead she continued in action adding her 8” guns to the maelstrom. Portland delivered devastating fire from her 8” guns into several targets but was hit in the stern by a Japanese torpedo which limited her to steaming in circles, yet still engaging any target she could.
Helena, Juneau and the rear destroyers now entered the fray. Helena, a veteran of Cape Esperance used her superior radar and experience to help deliver San Francisco from other Japanese attacks from Japanese destroyers and Nagara. Juneau was hit by a Japanese torpedo which broke her keel and left her dead in the water. Destroyers Barton and Monssen were devastier by Japanese fire, Barton sinking seven minutes into her combat career. Monssen was mortally wounded.
                                               Damage to USS Portland

At 0200 Admiral Abe broke off the action. Individual fights still continued, Sterrett crippled the Japanese destroyer Yudachi which was finished off of Portland shortly after sunrise. Hiei was crippled and was further damaged by Marine aircraft from Henderson Field before her crew scuttled her, she was the first Japanese battleship to be sunk in combat during the war. Cushing, Monssen, and Atlanta each lost their fight to stay afloat and Portland, assisted by the tug USS Bobolink reached the safety of Tulagi the next day. After temporary repairs she sailed for Australia and then the United States for full repair and modernization.

The Sullivan Brothers
As Captain Hoover, the senior surviving officer of the US task force took his surviving, and still navigable ships out of harm’s way. It was a harrowing task. Only Helena of his cruisers was fully operational, and  of his three destroyers, only Sterrett and Fletcher had operational sonar, but they were not enough to protect the crippled cruisers. At 1101 a torpedo hit Juneau, blasting her to pieces and leaving about one hundred survivors to fend for themselves as Hoover sought to avoid further attacks. For ten days the surviors suffered until an Army Air Force B-17 spotted them. By then only ten sailors remained alive from the crew of the Juneau, over seven hundred others, including the five Sullivan Brothers either went down with the ship or died awaiting rescue.

USS San Francisco Memorial, the outer wall is from the bridge of the ship still pierced by Japanese shell fire

Of the Commanders, Admiral Abe was forced into retirement at the age of 53, Admirals Callaghan and Scott died in the battle, and Captain Hoover was tried, but not convicted at Court Martial for the loss of Juneau and her crew.
But, the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was not yet over…

To be continued,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Veteran’s Day Postscript: Belonging to a Different World

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I wrote about Armistice Day and Veteran’s Day but I decided to write a postscript to it today. I write this specifically as a combat veteran who more than a decade after my return still deal with the effects of war, PTSD, TBI, sleep disorders, nightmares and night terrors, bad knees, ankles, shoulders, tinnitus, inability to understand speech, and a bunch of other stuff. I know many more who deal with what I do and worse. At least I am no longer suicidal, though I do experience periodic bouts of depression, panic attacks, and anxiety.

For me it began in February 2008 when on the way back from Iraq the military charter aircraft bringing us home stopped in Ramstein Germany. After a few hour layover we re-boarded the aircraft but we were no longer alone, the rest of the aircraft had been filled with the families of soldiers and airmen stationed in Germany. Just days before most of us had been in Iraq or Afghanistan. The cries of children and the intrusion of these people, not bad people by any means on our return flight was shocking, it was like returning to a world that I no longer knew.

I think that coming home from war, especially for those damaged in some way, in mind, body or spirit is harder than being at war.

In that thought I am not alone. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic novel All Quiet on the Western Front wrote:

“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.”

Likewise, Guy Sajer a French-German from the Alsace and veteran of the Grossdeutschland Division on the Eastern Front in World War II noted at the end of his book The Forgotten Soldier: 

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.”

I have been reminded of this several times in the past week. It began walking through a crowded Navy commissary on Saturday, in the few minutes in the store my anxiety level went up significantly. On Tuesday I learned of the death of Captain Tom Sitsch my last Commodore at EOD Group Two, who died by his own hand. His life had come apart. After a number of deployments to Iraq as the Commander EOD Mobile Unit 3 and of Task Force Troy he was afflicted with PTSD. Between June of 2008 and the end of 2009 he went from commanding an EOD Group to being forced to retire.  Today I had a long talk with a fairly young friend agonizing over continued medical treatments for terminal conditions he contracted in two tours in Iraq where he was awarded the Bronze Star twice.

I have a terrible insomnia, nightmares and night terrors due to PTSD. My memories of Iraq are still strong, and this week these conditions have been much worse. Sager wrote:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”

Nearly 20 years after returning from war, a survivor of the 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” of World War One, summed up the experience of so many men who come back from war:

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

butler-medals1

Two time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler toured Veterans hospitals following his retirement from the Marine Corps. He observed the soldiers who had been locked away. In his book War is a Racket:

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

Similarly Remarque wrote in All Quiet on the Western Front:

“A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, a single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.”

Lt.ColonelCharlesWhiteWhittlesey

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey

Sometimes even those who have been awarded our Nation’s highest award for valor succumb to the demons of war that they cannot shake, and never completely adjust to life at “home” which is no longer home. For them it is a different, a foreign world to use the words of Sager and Remarque. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey won the Medal Medal of Honor as Commander of 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” in France. After the war he was different. He gave up his civilian law practice and served as head of the Red Cross in New York. In that role, and as the Colonel for his reserve unit, he spent his time visiting the wounded who were still suffering in hospitals. He also made the effort to attend the funerals of veterans who had died. The continued reminders of the war that he could not come home from left him a different man. He committed suicide on November 21st 1921not long after serving as a pallbearer for the Unknown Soldier when that man was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

In his eulogy, Judge Charles L. Hibbard noted:

“He is sitting on the piazza of a cottage by the sea on a glorious late September day but a few weeks ago. . . He is looking straight out to sea, with naught but sea between him and that land where lie so many of his boys. The beating surf is but an echo, the warm, bright sunshine, the blue sky, the dancing waves, all combine to charm. But a single look at his face and one knows he is unconscious of this glory of Nature. Somewhere far down in the depths of his being or in imagination far off across the waters he lives again the days that are past. That unconscious look has all the marks of deep sorrow, brooding tragedy, unbearable memories. Weeks pass. The mainspring of life is wound tighter and tighter and then comes the burial of the Unknown Soldier. This draws the last measure of reserve and with it the realization that life had little now to offer. This quiet, reserved personality drew away as it were from its habitation of flesh, thought out the future, measured the coming years and came to a mature decision. You say, ‘He had so much to live for – family, friends, and all that makes life sweet.’ No, my friends, life’s span for him was measured those days in that distant forest. He had plumbed the depth of tragic suffering; he had heard the world’s applause; he had seen and touched the great realities of life; and what remained was of little consequence. He craved rest, peace and sweet forgetfulness. He thought it out quietly, serenely, confidently, minutely. He came to a decision not lightly or unadvisedly, and in the end did what he thought was best, and in the comfort of that thought we too must rest. ‘Wounded in action,’ aye, sorely wounded in heart and soul and now most truly ‘missing in action.’”

Psychologist and professor Dr. Ari Solomon analyzed the case of Colonel Whittlesey and noted:

“If I could interview Whittlesey as a psychologist today, I’d especially have in mind … the sharp discrepancy between the public role he was playing and his hidden agony, his constant re-exposure to reminders of the battle, his possible lack of intimate relations, and his felt need to hide his pain even from family and dearest friends.”

I wish I had the answer. I have some ideas that date back to antiquity in the ways that tribes, clans and city states brought their warriors home. The warriors were recognized, there were public rituals, sometimes religious but other times not. But the difference is that the warriors were welcomed home by a community and re-integrated into it. They were allowed to share their stories, many of which were preserved through oral traditions so long that they eventually were written down, even in a mythologized state.

But we do not do that. Our society is disconnected, distant and often cold. Likewise it is polarized in ways that it has not been since the years before our terrible Civil War. Our warriors return from war, often alone, coming home to families, friends and communities that they no longer know. They are misunderstood because the population at large does not share their experience. The picture painted of them in the media, even when it is sympathetic is often a caricature; distance and the frenetic pace of our society break the camaraderie with the friends that they served alongside. Remarque wrote, “We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.”

If we wonder about the suicide epidemic among veterans we have to ask hard questions. Questions like why do so many combat veterans have substance abuse problems and why is it that approximately one in ten prisoners serving time are veterans? It cannot be simply that they are all bad eggs. Many were and are smart, talented, compassionate and brave, tested and tried in ways that our civilian society has no understanding for or clue about. In fact to get in the military most had to be a cut above their peers. We have to ask if we are bringing our veterans home from war in a way that works. Maybe even more importantly we have to ask ourselves if as a culture if we have forgotten how to care about each other. How do we care for the men and women who bear the burden of war, even while the vast majority of the population basks in the freedom and security provided by the soldier without the ability to empathize because they have never shared that experience.

For every Tom Sitsch, Charles Whittlesey or people like my friend, there are countless others suffering in silence as a result of war. We really have to ask hard questions and then decide to do something as individuals, communities and government to do something about it. If we don’t a generation will suffer in silence.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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For Me It’s Personal: Veteran’s Day 2019


With Advisors and Bedouin Family, Iraq Syria Border, Christmas Eve 2007

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is the official observance of Veterans Day, which actually falls on The anniversary of Armistice Day. 

It is a strange feeling. I don’t really advertise that I am a veteran out in public, even though I have quite a few ball caps, sweat shirts, Polo shirts, hoodies, and fleeces that I could wear. To do that. I certainly am not ashamed of my service, but much of it has been hard, and I spend the time thinking about those who I served alongside, or set an example for me, living and dead. Unless something really unusual happens it will be my last on active duty.

I understand men like the Alsatian German Guy Sajer who wrote after spending World War Two on the Russian Front:

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t forget.”

As I said, I have been reflecting on the many friends, comrades, and shipmates, not all of whom are American, that I have served alongside, or have known in the course of my 38 plus year military career. I also am remembering my dad who served in Vietnam as a Navy Chief Petty Officer and the men who help to guide me in my military career going back to my high school NJROTC instructors, LCDR J. E. Breedlove, and Senior Chief Petty Officer John Ness.

My Dad, Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas

LCDR Breedlove and Senior Chief Ness

2nd Platoon, 557th Medical Company (Ambulance), Germany 1985

As I think of all of these men and women, I am reminded of the words spoke by King Henry V in Shakespeare’s play Henry V:

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

From the Speech of King Henry V at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” 1599

It is a peculiar bond that veterans share. On Veterans Day the United States choses to honor all of its veterans on a day that was originally dedicatedly Armistice Day, a day to remember the World War One, or the War to end all war; we saw how well that worked out, but I digress.

With My trusty Bodyguard and assistant RP1 Nelson LeBron, Habbinyah Iraq, January 2008. 

I wrote about Armistice Day yesterday, but Veterans Day is for all veterans, even those who fought in unpopular and sometimes even unjust wars. This makes it an honorable, but sometimes an ethical problematic observance. So, in a broader and more universal sense, those of us who have served, especially in the wars that do not fit with our nation’s ideals, share the heartache of the war; the loss of friends, comrades, and parts of ourselves, with the veterans of other nations whose leaders sent their soldiers to fight and die in unjust wars.

With Advisors at Al Waleed Border Crossing

It is now over ten years since I served in Iraq and nine years since my PTSD crash.  However, I still would do it again in a heartbeat.  There is something about doing the job that you were both trained to do and called to do that makes it so.  Likewise the bonds of friendship and brotherhood with those who you serve are greater than almost any known in the human experience.  Shared danger, suffering and trauma bind soldiers together, even soldiers of different countries and sometimes with enemies. I am by no means a warmonger, in fact I am much more of a pacifist now; but there is something about having served in combat, especially with very small and isolated groups of men and women in places where if something went wrong there was no possibility of help.

With my boarding team from the USS Hue City, Persian Gulf 2002

I remember the conversation that I had with an Iraqi Merchant Marine Captain on a ship that we had apprehended for smuggling oil violating the United Nations sanctions.  The man was a bit older than me, in his early 60s.  He had been educated in Britain and traveled to the US in the 1960s and 1970s. He had the same concerns as any husband and father for his family and had lost his livelihood after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990.   He was a gentleman who provided for his crew and went out of his way to cooperate with us.  In our last meeting he said to me: “Someday I hope that like the American, British, and German soldiers at the end of the Second World War, that we can meet after the war is over, share a meal and a drink in a bar and be friends.”

That is still my hope.

In the final episode of the series Band of Brothers there is a scene where one of the American soldiers, Joseph Liebgott who came from a German Jewish family interprets the words of a German General to his men in the prisoner compound.  The words sum up what the Americans had felt about themselves and likewise the bond that all soldiers who serve together in war have in common, if you have seen the episode you know how powerful it is, I ended up crying when I heard it the first time and cannot help but do so now that I have been to the badlands of Al Anbar Province.

“Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

We live in a time where it is quite possible or even likely that the world will be shaken by wars that will dwarf all of those that have occurred since the Second World War. Since I am still serving, I prepare myself every day, and speak frankly with those who I serve alongside of this reality.

Over the weekend I have had more people than I can count thank me for my service. For this I am grateful, for when my dad returned from Vietnam that didn’t happen. At the same time it is a bit embarrassing. I don’t really know what to say most of the time. I have always been a volunteer, I wasn’t drafted, and I even volunteered for my deployment to Iraq. But there are so many other men and women who have done much more than I ever did to deserve such expressions of thanks.

More than a decade after I left Iraq, I quite often feel out of place in the United States, even among some veterans. That isolation has gotten worse for me in the Trump era, especially after a Navy retiree in my chapel congregation attempted to have me tried by Court Martial for a sermon. I can’t understand that when the President that he worships dodged the draft, mocks veterans and real heroes, and has never even once in his first two years in office has refused to visit any deployed troops. The President, and those like him should think himself accursed that he has not only not served, but worked his entire life to avoid that service. I pray the the spirits of the honored dead haunt him until the day that he dies. That may sound harsh but he deserves a fate worse than a fate worse than death.

Judy were out with friends today, some military, retired, maybe some still active, as well as civilian friends, many of whom have military relations at Gordon Biersch, the brewer brewed a special Veterans IPA, proceeds from tonight which went to Virginia Veterans.

To my friends there I am Steve or the Padre. They all know me and know that I still serve, but that’s because they know me, not because I advertise. They also represent the span of political views in the country at large, but we are friends.

So until tomorrow,

I wish you peace,

Padre Steve+

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