Daily Archives: March 15, 2018

The Exploitation of the Military for Political Ends: The Military as Backdrop for Presidents

Bush Mayport

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Every President of the television age has used the military as a background for various speeches and announcements of policy, especially in regard to war. In February 2003 I was at one of these rallies when President George W. Bush rallied us to the upcoming war against Iraq. It was a “go to war” speech and he was cheered wildly and I joined in that cheering, and after all we all knew that the Iraqis had WMD, were part of the Axis of Evil, and were aiding Al Qaeda; and we were all wrong. As a result of that decision thousands of Americans were killed, tens of thousands wounded, and uncounted thousands of Iraqis killed, wounded, or driven from their homes. The result of that war was the complete destabilization and radicalization of the Middle East.  Fifteen years after that ill-fated decision to go to war the situation in the Middle East and the world is worse than it could ever been imagined it to be then.

But that was a go to war speech, the military personnel were used as a backdrop for enunciating the reasons to go to war. We were ordered to attend and ships were positioned for the best possible propaganda effect. My ship had just come out of the yards and had too much scaffolding to be a part of the display, but our crew was assembled as part of the backdrop for the speech.

That being said President Bush never attacked any political enemies or any other Americans, nor did he call opposition to his strategy by members of the media or anyone else as treasonous or called them the enemy. Instead, Saddam Hussein was the enemy and because we believed what we had heard in the media and from others in the military we approved.

Trump_Pledges_Pay_Raise_for_Military_During_Speech

On Tuesday President Trump gave a speech to Marines at Marine Corps Air Station, Miramar in San Diego.  In his speech the President talked of his wall, pay raises for the military, a “space force,”, and pointing to the assembled members of the media attacked the “fake news.” The Marines cheered wildly, and I shook my head because I knew that at one time earlier in my life, carried on by the emotion of being in the presence of the President and a lifetime of absorbing Fox News, talk radio, and conservative internet pundits for hours on end every day I probably would have cheered with them. I did that in 2003. It took me until 2007 while I was deployed in Iraq to figure out just how wrong that I was.

President Bush deserves legitimate criticism of his decision to attack Iraq, he has to be commended for not attempting to silence or demonize his opposition. The conservative media led by Fox News and radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh did but he didn’t. But unlike President Bush, President Trump backs hostile regimes and denounces critics at home. Say what you want about him but President Bush would not have done that in a million years.

What President Trump did was to lead young Marines who are sworn to defend the Constitution into cheerleaders for his attack against the First Amendment. As the did this I looked into the Marines assembled behind him, including officers and I wondered why didn’t anyone object by at least turning their head, or remaining silent instead of cheering or taking selfies.

This is so different than the lead up to the Iraq war. President Trump has declared war against his opponents at home while refusing to condemn the actions of the Russians, and appears by his words and actions leading us to war in the Middle East against Iran and its proxies, as well as North Korea.

General Ludwig Beck who commanded the German Army in 1938 resigned his post because he believed that Hitler in his desire to destroy Czechoslovakia by military force would lead to the destruction of Germany. Beck went into the opposition and died during the failed attempt to kill Hitler and overthrow the Nazi State on July 20th 1944.

Now Beck did have his flaws. He was not a supporter of the Weimar Republic. He was Anti-Semitic, and he was at heart a Monarchist. Despite that he joined with others of various political, ideological, and religious persuasions to try to overthrow Hitler. One thing that he said has stuck with me since my return from Iraq in 2008 and when I see things like the rally at Miramar I have to ask, where were the officers who should have known better?

Beck wrote:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.” 

I have spent almost half of my Navy career assigned to the Marines or supporting them. I am a graduate of the Marine Command and Staff College and a Fleet Marine Force qualified Navy Officer. I love and admire the Marine Corps. When I came to the Navy and was serving with the Second Marine Division as it was being readied for a possible invasion of Kosovo in 1999 I was asked by Colonel Robert Neller, “Chaplain, after all those years in the Army, what do you think about the Marine Corps?” My answer was “Colonel, this is the Army that I always wanted to serve in.” Colonel Neller is now the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

But what happened Tuesday reduced the Marines in attendance to political pawns in an ideological war to destroy the Constitution and replace it with a government based on xenophobia, greed, and fear. But then how could they not be?

Polls around the world show an increasing number of young people willing to ditch democracy in favor of authoritarian government models. This applies to both left and right wing variants. This is no different in the United States. The fact is that those who are old enough to remember the tyranny of the Nazi, Fascist, Nationalist, and Racist regimes of the Second World War have for the most part passed away. Likewise it has been nearly thirty years since the end of the Cold War and its existential threat of worldwide nuclear destruction, the Iron Curtain, the enslavement of tens of millions of people behind it, and the proxy wars between United States and Soviet surrogates not to mention the Soviet invasion  of Afghanistan and the Vietnam War. In the United States  and many, if not most of these young Marines were raised in homes where they digested a steady diet of Fox News, conservative talk radio, and right-wing websites. Coupled with the unique and almost mythological culture of the Marine Corps it is not hard to understand.

The terrible thing is, that if the President that these Marines were cheering does what he has repeatedly said he would do, attack North Korea or Iran, that many of the young men and women in attendance at the rally will die or be horribly wounded, and the country that they serve will suffer greatly.

SmedleyButler.jpeg

One of the greatest Marines to ever serve this country understood all too well the threat of men like President Trump to the country and the cost of war. That man was two time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler. Butler warned of the costs of war nationalism, and fascism. He 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….”

Butler was cashiered, threatened with court-martial, and retired by President Hoover for speaking the truth about Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. He would certainly speak the truth about President Trump. If only more veterans and military men would do so today.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under ethics, History, Military, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary

Controversy and Glory: Dan Sickles Part Six

Daniel_Edgar_Sickles

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am taking a break for the past week or so to read and reflect. As such I am re-posting some articles from my Gettysburg text dealing with a man that I consider one of the most fascinating , salacious, scandalous, heroic, and incredible figures ever to grace and disgrace American history, Congressman, and Civil War General Daniel E. Sickles.

I hope that you enjoy,

Peace

Padre Steve+

LongstreetJ_main

Lieutenant General James Longstreet C.S.A.

President John F. Kennedy paraphrased the words of the Roman Emperor Tacitus after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy told a journalist, “victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.” The problem in doing a proper analysis of Longstreet’s assault is the fact that many of the men involved on both sides made the battle personal, issuing scathing denunciations of one another, fudging the facts to their advantage, and by making the fight political a political football in the South and in the North.

The Confederate attacks had been badly directed and uncoordinated. In the end though McLaws’ and Hood’s divisions had succeeded in thrashing Sickles’ Third Corps in the exposed salient they were unsuccessful at breaking the Federal line. The disjointed nature of their attacks and the lack of active command and control by Lee and Longstreet had much to do with the outcome. Lee’s presence was needed on the south end of the Confederate line, but he left Longstreet to his own devices.

There was much blame to go around on the Confederate side, Longstreet placed much of the blame for the defeat on Lee, which earned him the everlasting enmity of many Confederates. But Lee’s Warhorse also met with criticism, especially for his performance on July 2nd 1863. Some of the most withering came not years later, but in the days following the battle. The harshest came from Lafayette McLaws, his old friend, who had been a favorite of Longstreet. McLaws blamed his corps commander for the defeat, writing his wife, “I think that the attack was unnecessary and the whole plan of battle a very bad one. Genl Longstreet is to blame for not reconnoitering the ground and for persisting in ordering the assault when his errors were discovered. During the engagement he was very excited [,] giving contrary orders to every one, and exceedingly overbearing. I consider him a humbug – a man of small capacity, very obstinate, not at all chivalrous, exceedingly conceited, and totally selfish….” [1]

One of Longstreet’s biographers wrote “Longstreet’s performance during the morning deserves criticism…. Had he attended to the details that were his responsibility and not allowed his disagreement with Lee to affect his judgment and effort, the afternoon assault would have begun sooner, but not several hours earlier.” [2] That historian believes that had Sickles not moved forward that Longstreet’s attack, even if made earlier would have met success, something echoed by Porter Alexander who wrote, “There seems no doubt that Longstreet’s attack on the 2nd been materially sooner, we would have gained a decided victory.” [3]

Casualties were heavy on both sides but the attack had failed and it had failed because of senior leadership of Lee and his corps commanders. Had Lee “duplicated the active role taken by his counterpart, George Meade, the outcome might have been different.” [4] But this too is speculation born of perfect 20/20 hindsight. One of Lee’s biographer’s wrote “Longstreet was disgruntled, Ewell was inept and Hill was unwell.” [5] To make matters worse, throughout the day, Robert E. Lee did not assert himself and even his most devoted biographer Douglas Southall Freeman would write that on July 2nd 1863 “the Army of Northern Virginia was without a commander.” [6]

general-george-meade

Major General George Meade U.S. Army

On the Federal side most of the controversy has to do with Sickles’ decision to move the Third Corps forward from Cemetery Hill to the Peach Orchard and so it is appropriate to close this chapter discussing Dan Sickles. The matter has been a long subject of controversy, especially because of the way that Sickles politicized his actions in the press and in the Congressional hearings that followed. Many generals on both sides blundered at Gettysburg.

One can speculate that had Sickles remained in the position dictated by Meade that the Confederate assault might have gone down to an even more disastrous defeat. That being said the line that Sickles would have occupied with his 10,600 troops was long and he could not have held it in great strength, even Little Round Top would have been lightly occupied, and Meade might not have been forced to reexamine his line. It is fully possible that “had Longstreet attacked there with the same headlong fury, it is possible that the Confederates would have broken through not merely into Sickles’ rear, but into the entire Union rear and that disaster would have been the result.” [7] However, Sickles, even though he thought he was justified, was wrong in not informing Meade of the move, and leaving his army commander ignorant of the position of his left.

Sickles action, though an error, was something that could have been rationally addressed by him and Meade long before the Confederate attack began. Had the two men “worked in tandem – that is had the line taken by the Third Corps been shared by the Fifth, and had command matters been resolved and fallback plans established – Longstreet’s troops would have been hard pressed to achieve any of their goals.” [8] One historian put the matter of Sickles’s decision and the subsequent controversies into perspective:

“The entire episode has been clouded since 1863 by issues of politics and personality that hinder unbiased analysis. It is time to put aside such extraneous issues. When Sickles’s scandalous prewar behavior, postwar bombast, and special pleading are discounted and the case is considered solely on its merits, the results of the Third Corps advance speak for themselves. Dan Sickles was not perfect on July 2, 1862, but neither was he the military buffoon so often portray.” [9]

In his after action report Meade criticized Sickles and did so again before the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, that latter in regard to comments made by Sickles and his supporters both to the committee and in the press. Meade not only had to deal with the diversions created by Sickles, he also had the real problem of Abraham Lincoln’s disappointment with his failure to catch and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia before it escaped across the Potomac. Dan Sickles did not have to worry about that, and “he could play the role that politicians play best: critic and second guesser.” [10]With the press on his side the former disgraced Congressman was now a one legged war hero, and Sickles attempted to use his redemption and status of a hero “to have Meade removed from command in disgrace.” [11] Many generals on both sides blundered at Gettysburg. Had Sickles taken the high road after the battle rather than attempting to torpedo the name and reputation of George Meade, his action might have provoked less controversy, and “Dan Sickles the historical figure has paid a permanent price for this, overshadowing the laudable work he did as an early force in establishing the Gettysburg National Memorial Park.” [12]

That was most unfortunate, for it has poisoned the discussion of the battle for over 150 years. Unlike Lee, Meade was constantly leading from the front on this long and brutal afternoon. Meade fought a magnificent defensive battle and recovered from the surprise of Sickles movement even as Sickles and his soldiers fought hard greatly impeded the Confederate plan. Sickles was praised in the press and even by long term enemies such as George Templeton Strong, who wrote, “I suppose Sickles… with his one leg, among our best volunteer officers. His recuperative powers are certainly wonderful. Four years ago he was a ruined man in every sense, a pariah whom to know was discreditable.” [13]

“The whole damned field is my memorial”

The Excelsior Brigade Monument at Gettysburg

But the continuing controversy which always seemed to swirl around him prevented him from being honored on the battlefield where he lost his leg. Alone of all the Union Corps commanders at Gettysburg Sickles has no memorial on the battlefield. When asked about the lack of a monument, Sickles, in his typical manner is reported to have said that “The whole damned field is my memorial.” [14]Despite the controversy surrounding his life, and those that swirled in the fighting and refighting of the Battle of Gettysburg, in true fashion Dan Sickles went on to further glory and scandal. Ulysses Grant never allowed him to command troops in the field, Sickles commanded the Military Department of South Carolina, the Department of the Carolinas, and the Department of the South, where was a strong proponent of Reconstruction. Teresa died of tuberculosis in 1866

He was retired as a Major General in the Regular Army in 1869 and went on to serve as Minister to Spain where he carried on an affair with the deposed Queen Isabella, a nymphomaniac who long before she ever Sickles had conducted a myriad of high profile affairs. The affair with the former queen was open and offensive to many people, but neither seemed to mind. In a sense they were kindred spirits. A Paris newspaper dubbed the one-legged General “the Yankee King of Spain.” [15]The affair with Isabella eventually burned itself out and Sickles married Senorita Caroline de Creagh, the daughter of a Spanish Minister, who bore him two children. To do this he converted to Roman Catholicism, something that he had never done when Teresa was alive. After his service in Spain was ended Sickles remained in Paris for four years, where he was widely admired and “received the office of Commander of the Legion of Honor.” [16]

Though a Democrat he supported Republican Presidential candidates Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford Hayes, the latter against a long time Democratic rival from New York. As he got older Gettysburg became an increasing part of his life and in 1892 he ran for Congress in order to spearhead efforts to preserve the battlefield. He was elected and it was in large part due to his efforts that what we now know as the Gettysburg National Military Park exists. In 1893, Sickles met James Longstreet at a Gathering in Gettysburg, and the two men became lifelong friends. Since the war both men had been refighting the battle and the controversies that hung over their decisions that July 2nd like a pall. Longstreet, for his actions on the battlefield, and his decision to become a Republican and serve in the post-war Reconstruction efforts was a pariah in much of the South. That “unpopularity was painful to him, and he was glad to find a sympathetic ally in Sickles. Each of the two generals agreed that the other had moved with blameless skill that day,” [17] and both would defend the other in the succeeding years. As the continuing battle of Gettysburg was fought in the press and in histories written by various participants, Longstreet wrote of Sickles, “I believe it is now conceded that the advanced position at the peach orchard, taken by your Corps and under your orders, saved that battlefield for the Union cause.” [18]

Sickles was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1897, the citation stating, “Displayed most conspicuous gallantry on the field vigorously contesting the advance of the enemy and continuing to encourage his troops after being himself severely wounded.”

Sickles long to outlived George Meade who died in 1872 and all of the other Corps commanders of the Army of the Potomac, not to mention most of his friends and enemies. His father George Sickles died in 1887 leaving Dan an estate of nearly five million dollars. His daughter by Teresa, Laura, whose life had been so scarred by the events of 1859 died alone and estranged from her father. In 1896, disgusted by the nomination of William Jennings Bryant as the Democratic Presidential nominee, the one-legged Sickles went to work with his old Gettysburg comrade, the one-armed Oliver Otis Howard to campaign for the Republican William McKinley. They were quite a pair, the religious Howard, and the libertine Sickles, but they helped McKinley defeat Bryant, and McKinley remained grateful to them until his death by an assassin’s bullet.

In 1913 he attended the fiftieth anniversary ceremonies at Gettysburg where he watched the white haired survivors of Pickett’s Charge hobble across the wide battlefield into the arms of their former opponents on Cemetery Ridge. Helen Longstreet, James Longstreet’s second wife and widow quoted the words of a poet named Horatio King, for the event for a southern newspaper.

I see him on that famous field,

The bravest of the brave,

Where Longstreet’s legions strove to drive

The Third Corps to its grave

The fight was bloody, fierce and long,

And Sickles’ name shall stay

Forever in the hall of fame

As he who saved the day [19]

While Helen Longstreet’s claim that Sickles was “forever in the hall of fame” is a tad farfetched, there is no doubt that scoundrel had found redemption. When Sickles died in 1914 at the age of 94, his funeral was held at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, with full military honors, his flag-draped casket carried on an artillery caisson accompanied by a rider-less horse and artillery salutes. His funeral, in a military cemetery among other soldiers was “proof that he was no longer an attorney, politician, or even the murderer of Barton Key,” [20] he was a soldier. His tombstone simply reads:

Daniel E. Sickles

Medal of Honor

Maj. Gen. U.S. Army

May 3 1914

sickles grave

The New York Times made a comment that no one, be they an admirer or enemy could deny. “He was a truly adventurous spirit.” [21]

Notes

[1] Ibid. Oeffinger A Soldier’s General p.197

[2] Ibid. Wert General James Longstreet p.279

[3] Ibid. Alexander Fighting for the Confederacy p.278

[4] Ibid. Wert General James Longstreet p.279

[5] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His CriticsBrassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.149

[6] Freeman, Douglas S. R.E. Lee volume 3 Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1935 p.150

[7] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.235

[8] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, the Testing of Courage p.421

[9] Robertson, William Glenn The Peach Orchard Revisited: Daniel E. Sickles and the Third Corps on July 2, 1863 in The Second Day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership edited by Gary W. Gallagher, The Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio and London, 1993 p.56

[10] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 244

[11] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.235

[12] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 401

[13] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg pp.244-245

[14] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.390

[15] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.321

[16] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.339

[17] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.367

[18] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.341

[19] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.353

[20] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 385

[21] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.390

2 Comments

Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, historic preservation, History, Military