Category Archives: film

Stalingrad and Responsibility: God is Not Always With Us

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tomorrow I will be taking part in a commemoration of the seventy-sixth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It will be a special occasion and I will write about it tomorrow evening.

However tonight I took the time to watch the German 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 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 believe in God and the Soviets do not, and he calls attentional their belt buckles which are embossed with the words Gott mit Uns, or God is with us. I am a Chaplain 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.

The second one is also difficult. I have been in the military for about thirty-six and a half years. Truthfully I am a dinosaur. I am the third 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?

Capt. Hermann Musk: You know what would happen if we do.

Otto: Do we deserve any better?

Capt. 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 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 2003I had 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 someone else in 2006 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.

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 even as he holds the professional military in contempt seems to be angling for war in both the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula. I have no doubt that War is coming and that our President will be a catalyst for it, but I have to 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 to many nationalists have done in the past. I don’t actually think that I ever said the words “God is with us” in my career as a Chaplain, but I am sure that my words, and public prayers could have been interpreted in that manner 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.

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. Honestly, I dread what may befall us.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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In Harm’s Way They Went…

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It has been a busy day as we finished the major part of decorating our home for the Advent and Christmas seasons. I think that this year is the first year that we have everything ready before the first Sunday of Advent and that even means getting all the boxes that our decorations came in back up to the attic. When we finished we went out to our favorite local German restaurant, The Bier Garden over in Portsmouth.

Since we are coming up on the seventy-sixth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and it seems that the United States may again become involved in a truly major and destructive war the likes that we have not seen since the Second World I decided to put on the classic film In Harm’s Way, directed by Otto Preminger and starring John Wayne and an all star cast. It is an unusual film because it deals with very fallible people who can be heroes and scoundrels who have miserable failings. It deals with families, strong ones and broken ones, and it also deals with a topic that is all too current, sexual harassment and rape.

Of course it is set during the Second World War and deals with the Navy in the Pacific during the early part of the war and though it is fictional it represents real battles around the Solomons. Those battles were often bloody. During the first engagement of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal a U.S. task force slugged it out at close range with a Japanese Force which had the mission of knocking out the Marine airbase on the island the Navy lost two cruisers and four destroyers and of thirteen ships engaged only one remained undamaged. To give an idea how brutal it was, both admirals embarked on the U.S. force were killed in the action.

The tag line for the movie is one that I really like because it kind of tells it like it is when a nation, not just a volunteer professional military goes to war: “In harm’s way they went. The men. The women. The lovers for a night. The lovers for keeps. The strong. The weak. They went, as they were…in Harm’sway.”

I have made two wartime deployments, one on a cruiser and one in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province. I have seen men and women, and families who have gone to war and come home, sometimes rather worse for the wear. I still have nightmares and night terrors from Iraq, but I have written about that before. PTSD is a bitch.

But anyway, as I ponder what is going on in our country and the world I realize that things are probably going to get much worse before they get better. I expect that many unsuspecting people will find themselves in harm’s way sooner rather than later, and like the Americans of 1941, complacent though the world was already at war, will come face to face with a rude awakening that will determine who we are and what we will be for at least a generation. The closing credits of the film are dramatic moving from waves braking upon a beach, to stormy seas, to the explosions of war culminating in the blast of a hydrogen bomb, before going back to a calm sea.

https://youtu.be/_OGVzjqoJ0Q

W.H. Auden wrote:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Until,tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Downfall: Misplaced Loyalty

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight I decided to watch again the film Downfall which is about the last ten days of Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich.” After the film was over I watched the special features which included a segment on the making of the movie along with interviews with the actors portraying Hitler, his entourage, and the defenders of Berlin. The film and commentary is in German with English subtitles but is probably the best film that deals with the subject ever made.

Since it is in German and since I speak German I do my best to try to listen rather than watch the subtitles and in doing so I pick up on some of the nuances of the language that do not necessarily come through as well when translated into English.

It is a hard film to watch because the producers, directors, and cast strove for historical accuracy. Since I have studied the people, the era, the ideology, and the battle for years I already feel like I know the people involved. The fact that the cast does such a good job portraying them is remarkable, these are not your typical cookie cutter depictions of Nazis seen in so many other films.

But what really struck me tonight was the absolute fanaticism of so many of them, and one of the actors noted in his interview that his character, SS General Wilhelm Mohnke, was a fanatical Nazi even at the end, something that was common among many of the Hitler entourage and the SS. The actors managed to put a human face on evil, that is hard to do in film.

As I watched the devotion of Hitler’s entourage and loyal SS soldiers I could only think of the devotion, fanaticism, and moral blindness shown by so many supporters of the American President today. The motto of the SS was Meine Ehre Heisst Treue, or My Honor is loyalty. The motto could be applied to President Trump’s most devotee followers in their Make America Great Again ball caps.

I just shake my head when I hear and see some of the things said and done by the President’s most fervent supporters. The President was right about them. When he said “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters” he was absolutely correct. Despite the myriad of lies and untruths, the actions that are absolutely contrary to the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and for that matter the Gospel, his followers, many conservative Evangelical Christians dig in deeper to defend him even as he leads them to destruction.

It is the same kind of cult like devotion engendered by Hitler in his followers, who like the followers of Trump were conditioned by years of right wing propaganda to believe everything he says because he says what they already believe. I can understand them because from 1989 when I first started listening to Rush Limbaugh, until I deployed to Iraq and came back a changed man in 2008 I absorbed every bit of the same propaganda, that of Limbaugh, Hannity, Savage, and Fox News that the most steadfast followers of Trump did. But when I came back from Iraq I was like the German soldiers who returned home in 1942 or 1943 and realized all that they were fighting for had been a lie.

I think that one of the most disturbing things that I see is that the people who I was most like in the late 1990s until 2007, Conservative Evangelical and Catholic Christians seem to be the most loyal to Trump. That is disturbing because I think of the words of the German pastor Martin Niemoller who wrote:

“I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.”

Niemoller realized his mistake too late as I fear many well meaning people who follow Trump will as well. For Christians, to surrender honor, truth, and self-respect all for the sake of political power is to cease to follow Jesus. To do so may be an act of religious devotion, but it is not to God, it is to an idol.

Anyway, I recommend the film.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Books and Burbs

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

“He can’t come out until he resembles the man that I married.” Carol Peterson, Carrie Fisher in The Burbs.

As always I am reading even though at work I have been extraordinarily busy. Last night I finished Christopher Clark’s tome The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 and began reading David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and Nicholas Stargardt’s The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945. Today I also received in the mail a copy of a book that I used to cut my 7th period Geometry class in order to read in my high school library, Theodore Roscoe’s United States Destroyer Operations in World War II.

Clark’s book is exceptional and needs to be read alongside other titles dealing with the same era including Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. I have read many of Halberstam’s other books and as always his work is deeply engrossing. I’ll make a full report when I am done with it but it is a myth buster. Stargardt’s book is also hard to put down and between the two books I have about a thousand pages of reading ahead of me. At lunchtime I am reading Tony Judt’s I’ll Fares the Land. I think that should get me through the first week of December. Roscoe’s Destroyer Operations is a gem for anyone who appreciates the sacrifices made by the Tin Can sailors of the U.S. Navy in the Second Ward War. It too is some 500 pages long but it is to be savored like a really nice Irish Single Malt Whiskey just before bed. Of course I have some other books in my book stack to read, but these are the current ones on top.

Tonight I am watching one of my favorite movies, The Burbs starring Tom Hanks and the late Carrie Fisher. If there is a cinematic couple that is me and Judy it is the characters portrayed by Hanks and Fisher in that film. Honestly I cannot ever not laugh watching the movie. Judy agrees that Carrie Fisher’s character is her, the true voice of reason.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“Denial” on the Trip to Munich

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday I flew to Munich and was able to to see a film that I should have taken to watch a long time ago. The film was Denial which is based on the trial of the libel trial against Deborah Lipstadt by the infamous Holocaust denier and fake historian David Irving. The film was worth it and I have decided to while in Munich again travel to Dachau. This time by myself to walk the perimeter, and this time, the Gas chamber. I’ll do it on a day with bad weather. I will get up early and allow Judy to sleep in and rest.

Holocaust deniers, and deniers of other instances of genocide or systematic racism, including those who still deny the evils of American slavery, or the extermination of Native Americans. The truth of the matter is that when it comes to these matters that all speech and all opinions are not equal. The fact is that the Holocaust happened, the same with so many other genocides, Armenia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, the Native Americans, and yes the evil of the American system of slavery which was ensconced in law, and supported by Northern businessmen and bankers as much as it was the Southern slaveholders and politicians who pushed for slaveries expansion across the continent and into Central America and Cuba themselves.

The deniers do one thing well, they lie. In the film and in the real trial the issue came down to the veracity of David Irving, and the court found that he lied and twisted evidence to support his pro-Hitler beliefs. The same is true with other Holocaust deniers, as well as the proponents of the Noble South, the Lost Cause, and those that defend modern White Racism.

So while I am in Germany I will revisit Dachau, visit the graves and memorials to the anti-Nazi martyrs of the White Rose, and the T4 Euthanasia center in Hadamar. I have to do it so as the survivors pass away that someone like me, a gentile, priest, and historian can confront those that lie and deny in order to defend their ahistorical and evil ideology. Sadly, their ranks are growing, emboldened by what they believe is the support of the American President. Whether he actually supports them I don’t know, but they believe that he does and many of his words seem to support what they believe.

So as you read this I will have been in Munich a few hours. It will be a rainy day today, or at least the morning will. After we arrive Judy and I will settle into our hotel and weather permitting head down to the Fest in the afternoon or evening.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Dunkirk: A Symphony of War in Three Parts


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night Judy and I went to see the movie Dunkirk. It was different from any war movie that I have ever seen and that was a good thing. It was a work of art that brought the terrible truth of war, of defeat, and of human courage and suffering together in a symphony. Director Christopher Nolan managed to blend three separate timelines to tie together the action on the ground, at sea, and in the air. 

There was not a lot of dialogue but what there was blended well with the images and the score. The fact that the film was primarily shot in IMAX and 70mm instead of digital and used real ships and aircraft instead of massed amounts of digitally created military hardware added to the realism, as the musical score written by Hans Zimmer wrapped itself around you with the ticking of a watch ever present. 

If you have ever been to war or served at sea and been shot at, the movie captured the worst fears of a soldier, sailor, or airman at war; a soldier being trapped on a beach under fire and waiting for rescue; a sailor struggling to escape a sinking ship, or an airman wondering if you have enough fuel to complete the mission and make it home. It also captured the feeling of being delivered from danger, and how that feeling can change in the blink of an eye to terror and despair. 

I liked the way that Nolan and Hans Zimmer who wrote the musical score gave something we often overlook in life, the matter of time to the forefront. The ticking of the watch and the blending of an hour in the air, a day at sea, and a week on the land reminded me of how important time is, especially when you are at war. I remember traveling in Iraq by air and ground and just how different each felt in manner of time. Likewise, how different the concept of time felt being on a larger ship or a small boat in a hostile area. 

Dunkirk was a different way to look at war, and maybe because so few people in the United States or Western Europe have experienced war that is a good thing. I honestly think that a film like this, which did not focus on the Generals, Admirals, or political leaders, but rather common soldiers, sailors, and airmen, was a good thing. As far as characters in the film I found that Kenneth Branagh’s character, a Royal Navy Commander directing the evacuation of soldiers from the harbor mole, followed by Tom Hardy who played a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot, and Mark Rylance who played a civilian mariner to be the most compelling characters. 

Anyway, it is a film that I believe deserves much praise because it focused on the men who fight the war, and what they feel when under fire, rather than trying to wrap the narrative in a neat package with a happy ending. Dunkirk was a miracle that kept a disaster from ending the war. It was not a military victory, it was a nation pulling together to stave off utter defeat, and it allowed Britain to remain in the war and hold off the Nazis in the west until the United States entered the war after Pearl Harbor. 

If you want to read a good book about Dunkirk that will not take too much time I recommend Walter Lord’s Miracle at Dunkirk, and for a broader perspective on the 1940 campaign in France, I recommend Alistair Horne’s classic To Lose a Battle, France 1940, and William Shirer’s The Collapse of the Third Republic, an Inquiry into the Fall of France 1940. 

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Bridge Too Far: History, Dissent, and North Korea

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Major General Urquhart: I took 10,000 of our finest troops to Arnhem; I’ve come back with less than 2,000. I don’t feel much like sleeping.

Lt. General Frederick “Boy” Browning: I’ve just been on to Monty. He’s very proud, and pleased.

Major General Urquhart: [incredulous] PLEASED!

Lt. General Frederick “Boy” Browning: According to himself, technically, Market Garden was 90% successful.

Major General Urquhart: But what do YOU think?

Lt. General Frederick “Boy” Browning: Well, as you know, I always felt we tried to go a bridge too far…

Yesterday was our first full day back after our Memorial Day outing to Bethany Beach, a day of work as well as catching up. After our day of taking care of business we went and spent time with our friends at Gordon Biersch and then adoring our Papillon pups, I put on the classic film A Bridge too Far as a belated Memorial Day remembrance. For me as a veteran of Iraq the film conjures up images of heroic sacrifices of men and women who died or became victims of a plan gone wrong.

The film if you haven’t seen it depicts the failed Allied attempt of September 1994 to liberate the Netherlands, cross the Rhine and end World War Two by Christmas. It was a plan that depended much on luck, and ignored the capabilities of the Germans, who the Allies for the most part already believed had been beaten following the campaign in Normandy and the dash across France.

Despite the weakness of the Germans he Allied plan came close to succeeding yet failed and in doing so prolonged the war and inflicted much more suffering on the people of the Netherlands who were not liberated until the end of the war. The failure was one of a failed operational plan that had strategic consequences.

In the past few days I have been become even more concerned about the situation on the Korean Peninsula and the risks of a war that could have worldwide implications, and none of them good. Secretary of Defense Mattis warned of a potential catastrophe, even as the USS Nimitz departed the West Coast to join the USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan in the operational area while the North Koreans launched more missiles. The concentration of three carrier battle groups, even for a short time provides the President a massive amount of military power in the region should he decide to launch a preemptive strike as he has more than once spoken about. The fact is that if war breaks out that the casualties will be in the hundreds of thousands if not millions, and that is if the war stays contained to the Korean Peninsula.

I am also concerned that a war with North Korea could be the pretext for the Trump administration to sharply curtail civil liberties at home including the freedom of speech and of political opposition. Be assured that if war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula that these rights will be suppressed and that anyone who opposes the government in  any way whatsoever will be labeled as a defeatist, traitor, or worse. We have seen the same pathology after the 9/11 attacks when those who were not opposed to actions agains Al Qaida were condemned because they opposed the expansion of the war into Iraq. I know this because I was one of those people who condemned these people; and sadly in retrospect in their condemnation of the invasion of Iraq they they were more patriotic than me because I supported it, knowing the dangers.

As far as the Allies were concerned Operation Market Garden was a delay in their plans to invade Germany proper, but for the Germans it was a pyrrhic victory which doomed more of their soldiers, civilians, and their victims to death. The Allied efforts were considered a part of a more righteous cause, while for the most part the German people remained under the spell of Hitler until the end, and even then those who opposed or even were thought to be “defeatists” in Germany were considered to be as bad or worse than the enemies of the Third Reich.

Milton Mayer who wrote the book They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945 described the thoughts of a German academic colleague in 1955. Mayer’s friend said:

“Once the war began,” my colleague continued, “resistance, protest, criticism, complaint, all carried with them a multiplied likelihood of the greatest punishment. Mere lack of enthusiasm, or failure to show it in public, was ‘defeatism.’ You assumed that there were lists of those who would be ‘dealt with’ later, after the victory. Goebbels was very clever here, too. He continually promised a ‘victory orgy’ to ‘take care of’ those who thought that their ‘treasonable attitude’ had escaped notice. And he meant it; that was not just propaganda. And that was enough to put an end to all uncertainty.

“Once the war began, the government could do anything ‘necessary’ to win it; so it was with the ‘final solution of the Jewish problem,’ which the Nazis always talked about but never dared undertake, not even the Nazis, until war and its ‘necessities’ gave them the knowledge that they could get away with it. The people abroad who thought that war against Hitler would help the Jews were wrong. And the people in Germany who, once the war had begun, still thought of complaining, protesting, resisting, were betting on Germany’s losing the war. It was a long bet. Not many made it.”

That is something I worry about every day here as the Trump administration, facing failure on so many fronts, and under investigation of things that if any of the rest of us had even been accused of them would be considered treasonous, may embark on a war to save itself and at the same time use the extraordinary nature of such a conflict to consolidate power and crush dissent. That may sound far fetched, but all of his actions and words, as a candidate for President, as the President-Elect, and as President point in that direction and his most faithful followers show that they will even commitment treasonous acts and in some cases even resort to violence and murder to support him.

Trust me I want to be wrong about this more than anyone can imagine, but I cannot get rid of the feeling I have in my gut nor the terrible nightmares I have about this several times a week. I wonder if the Trump administration will gamble on an easy victory to end a very real North Korean threat to the region. If they do there will be no good outcome and we may lose freedoms that we never dreamt possible to lose.

If such an action does not succeed will the President then as he always does that his failure was a success? Will he pronounce like Field Marshal Montgomery that the failed attack was 90% successful or even more? And what of his military advisors? I dare not even attempt to answer that question anymore.

So until tomorrow I must ponder the words of General John Buford played by Sam Elliott in the film Gettysburg: 

“Devin, I’ve led a soldier’s life, and I’ve never seen anything as brutally clear as this. It’s as if I can actually see the blue troops in one long, bloody moment, goin’ up the long slope to the stony top. As if it were already done… already a memory. An odd… set… stony quality to it. As if tomorrow has already happened and there’s nothin’ you can do about it. The way you sometimes feel before an ill-considered attack, knowin’ it’ll fail, but you cannot stop it. You must even take part, and help it fail.”

Like I said, I want more than anything to be wrong about all of this but I fear that I am not and I cannot shake that feeling. So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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