Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
One of the more sobering war movies that I have ever watched is the film Stalingrad. Released in 1993 it is the story of four soldiers of a platoon of soldiers of the 336th Pioneer Battalion. The Pioneers were the equivalent of American Combat Engineers. It is a sobering film to watch. In a way it is much like the film Platoon. Director Joseph Vilsmaier made the battle and the human suffering come alive with realism. There is no happy ending and there are few if any heroes. The men see, protest, are punished, and then are ordered to participate in war crimes.
The battle of Stalingrad was one of the turning points of the Second World War, over a million Russian, German, Romanian, and Italian Soldiers died in the battle. Of the 260,000 soldiers of the German Sixth Army which led the attack in Stalingrad and then were surrounded by the Soviet counter-offensive, very few survived. Some escaped because they were evacuated by transport planes, but most perished. Of the approximately 91,000 German soldiers that surrendered only about 6,000 returned home.
I’ll write about that battle again around Christmas and on the anniversary of its surrender at the end of January, but there are two sequences of dialogue that stood out to me. The first is at the beginning of the battle where a German Chaplain exhorts the soldier to fight against the “Godless Bolsheviks” because the Germans believed in God and the officially Atheistic Soviet Union and its people did not. In his exhortation the Chaplain calls attentional the belt buckles worn by every soldier in the Wehrmacht, which were embossed with the words Gott mit Uns, or God is with us.
I am a a military Chaplain. I have been one since 1992, and the older I get the more distrustful I am of men who place a veneer of region over the most ungodly and unjust wars. For me that was frightening because I do know from experience that the temptation to do such things when in uniform is all too great, but how can anyone exhort people to acts of criminality in the name of God? I know that it is done far too often and I hate to admit I personally know, or know of American military chaplains who would say the same thing as the German Chaplain depicted in the film. Back in the Cold War while serving as an officer before I became a Chaplain I used to talk about the Godless Communists.
The second question is also difficult. I have been in the military for about thirty-seven plus years. Truthfully I am a dinosaur. I am the second most senior and the oldest sailor on my base. I have served during the Cold War as a company commander, was mobilized as a chaplain to support the Bosnia operation in 1996, I have served in the Korean DMZ, at sea during Operation Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch, and with American advisors to the Iraqi Army, Police, and Border troops in Al Anbar Province. I have seen too much of war but even though I could retire from the military today I still believe that I am called to serve and care for the men and women who will go into harm’s way.
That being said those who have read my writings on this site for years know just how anti-war I have become and why this dialogue hits so hard. Some of the members of the platoon are accused of cowardice and sent to a penal company in order to redeem themselves. The commander of the unit, a Captain who hold the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross is confronted by one of the men.
Otto: You know we don’t stand a chance. Why not surrender?
Captain Hermann Musk: You know what would happen if we do.
Otto: Do we deserve any better?
Captain Hermann Musk: Otto, I’m not a Nazi.
Otto: No, you’re worse. Lousy officers. You went along with it all, even though you knew who was in charge.
That is something that bothers me even today. I wonder about the men who go along with wars which cannot be classified as anything other than war crimes based on the precedents set by Americans at Nuremberg, and I am not without my own guilt. In 2003 I had my own misgivings about the invasion of Iraq, but I wholeheartedly supported it and volunteered to go there.
I was all too much like the German Captain. I went along with it despite my doubts. As a voter I could have cast my vote for John Kerry in 2004, but I didn’t. Instead I supported a President who launched a war of aggression that by every definition fits the charges leveled against the leaders of the Nazi state at Nuremberg. When I was in Iraq I saw things that changed me and I have written in much detail about them on this site, but I supported that invasion.
Now as a nation we are in a place where a man who openly advocates breaking the Geneva and Hague Conventions, supports the use of torture, and who both beats the drums of war, to the extent of appointing one of the most strident proponents of the invasion of Iraq as his National Security Advisor. Likewise, he holds the professional military in contempt appears to be angling for war in the Middle East against Iran even as he excuses the criminal actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and against American residents.
I have no doubt that unless something changes that a terrible war is coming and that our President will be a catalyst for it. But for the next nine months before I retire, I will remain in the military to care for the sailors, soldiers, marines, and airmen who will have to go to war and perhaps fight and die.
The thought haunts me and makes it hard for me to sleep at night and I do my best to speak up and be truthful in fulfillment of my priestly vows and my oath of office. Today, unlike my younger years; one thing for me is true: I will never tell any military member that God is with us in the sense that all too many Christian nationalists have done in the past.
I don’t actually think that I ever said the words “God is with us” in regards to advocating war in my career as a Chaplain, but I am sure that my words, and public prayers could have been interpreted in that way when I was younger, especially in the traumatic days after September 11th, 2001.
Likewise, I did go along with the war in Iraq even though I understood what it meant! and what the men and women who engineered it wanted when they took us to war. Sadly, I trusted my leaders too much, especially when Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke before the United Nations to prove the case against Iraq just before the invasion.
Supreme Justice Robert Jackson, who served as the Chief American Prosecutor at Nuremberg stated in the London Agreement:
“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.”
Now we live in a world where nationalism, ethnic, racial, and religious hatred are rising, and our own President seems to be abandoning the democratic and pluralistic ideas of or founders, while praising and tacitly supporting authoritarian and Fascist rulers around the world. Honestly, I dread what may befall us if he remains in power.
So until tomorrow,