Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Nuclear Giants and Ethical Infants


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a short couple of thoughts today since I was hoping that yesterday would see a ratcheting down of the war rhetoric coming out of President Trump, some of his advisers, and the Kim Jong Un regime in North Korea. But that has not been the case. On the American side the President upped the ante with his rhetoric even as some cabinet members seem to be trying to moderate those comments. Of course the North Koreans are upping the ante by threatening the American bases on Guam. 

With every new threat uttered by President Trump and the North Korean regime the stakes get higher and the chances of miscalculation that lead to war grow. Barbara Tuchman wrote in her book The March of Folly, From Troy to Vietnam, “To those who think them selves strong, force always seems the easiest solution.” That sums up the behavior of President Trump and Kim Jong Un, although the Korean despot is the one who is putting the American President on the defensive, in a sense allowing President Trump to back himself into a corner where if he doesn’t resort to force he will lose face. Both sides are playing with fire while standing in gasoline. North Korea would certainly be defeated, but the cost will be dreadful, especially to South Korea, and probably Japan, and yes, even to the United States, and we cannot assume that other nations will not become involved in a war should it occur. 

Over a decade before the first atomic bomb was used, Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler wrote about the cost of war: “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…” Those words have a greater significance in the nuclear age than when he wrote them. 

There have been many times in history where leaders of nations allowed their rhetoric to take them to war when other options we still viable, but not between nuclear armed powers. It is the incredible destructive power of nuclear weapons and the real possibility that their use would be not be limited to so-called surgical strikes. The destructive power of this technology and lack of impulse control of the American President and the North Korean dictator are a recipe for disaster. It is no wonder that over a half-century ago General of the Army Omar Bradley said: “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war that we know about peace, more about killing that we know about living.” 

In writing about the 14th Century Tuchman wrote: “For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.” Things have changed very little in regard to the humanity involved and we can only hope that cooler heads prevail. 

Anyway, that is all for today.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“The Unfolding of Miscalculations” With Fire and Fury…


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

While I have been on leave I have been re-reading Barbara Tuchman’s classic work on the outbreak of the First World War, The Guns of August. I find a a fitting read for our time, not because there are exact parallels between that era and today, but because human beings are remarkably consistent in times of crisis. Tuchman wrote: “One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.”

Yesterday after I got back to our friends house after taking Izzy on a four mile walk through Huntington’s Ritter Park I learned that President Trump had warned North Korea, following an announcement that it had now produced nuclear weapons small enough to be mounted on a missile, that if it did not stop threatening the United States that it would be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before…” 

Not long afterward the North Koreans announced that they were examine a plan to attack the American territory of Guam and the bases, which house some of the long ranger bombers used by the United States to buttress its defense of the Pacific it with ballistic missiles. 

The rhetoric and preparations on both sides are continuing to mount and there is a real possibility that either Trump or his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jung Un could miscalculate the will of the other and provoke a regional, and maybe World War. Threats of preemptive strikes, which the North Koreans habitually make, and President Trump alluded to yesterday can easily cause on side or the other to want to strike first and precipitate a war that no-one can really win. As Kathy Gilsinin wrote in The Atlantic in April: “When two leaders each habitually bluster and exaggerate, there’s a higher likelihood of making a catastrophic mistake based on a bad guess.” 

Most Americans are clueless as to what that would mean and I don’t think that the understand how many millions of people would die, and how much the country would be devastated by such a war, especially if it involved nuclear weapons. Secretary of Defense James Mattis understands. He told CBS’s John Dickerson, “A conflict in North Korea would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.” In June he told the House Appropriations Committee: “It will be a war more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we’ve seen since 1953… It would be a war that fundamentally we don’t want,” but “we would win at great cost.” 

Of course people from across the political, and even the religious spectrum are weighing in on the situation, especially the President’s words to meet future North Korean threats with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Of course some of his supporters like Trump’s de-facto Reichsbischof, Pastor Robert Jeffress are all in favor of war. Jeffrey’s said when asked about Trump’s remarks “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” It is always comforting to know that prominent Christians like Jeffress and the other Court Evangelicals are the cheerleaders of any war party. 

Many others on both sides of the political divide including Senator John McCain, have pointed to the danger that the Presidents comments pose. McCain said:  “I don’t know what he’s saying and I’ve long ago given up trying to interpret what he says.” He added, “That kind of rhetoric, I’m not sure how it helps.” He observed, “I take exception to the president’s words because you got to be sure you can do what you say you’re going to do.”

In an interview the discredited Trump advisor, Sebastian Gorka, who has ties to Hungarian Fascist organizations, did what all good servants of totalitarian leaders do, paint the opposition as unpatriotic and disloyal to the country:

“It saddens me,” Gorka said. “We need to come together. And anybody, whether they’re a member of Congress, whether they’re a journalist, if you think that your party politics, your ideology, trumps the national security of America, that’s an indictment of you, and you need to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself what’s more important: my political party or America. There’s only one correct answer.”

Of course the opponents of what the President said were not arguing against our national security but for it. The President’s words were dangerous, not because he drew a line in the sand, but because of the parameters of his threat. Instead of being specific and saying if the North Koreans conducted another nuclear test, tested another long range missile, or made a specific kind of military action, he threatened fire and fury if North Korea issued a threat to the United States, which they did a few hours later against the American forces on Guam, a threat that was not met with fire and fury. 


By threatening fire and fury the President continues to remind people that he is prone to speaking loudly and making great exaggerations, but doing little of substance. Throughout his business career and public life often makes bad “gut” decisions because he prefers to go with his gut rather than hard data or facts. His four corporate bankruptcies demonstrate that all too well. Likewise, his habitual tendencies to lie and exaggerate have already proven detrimental to U.S. foreign policy because world leaders do not believe that he can be trusted. 

Deterrence only works if people believe that a leader or country will do what it says. That was a hallmark of the Cold War, despite their threats both the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union understood each other. That understanding was instrumental in defusing the threat of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and on a number of other occasions when computer or radar systems gave false alerts which could have resulted in missile launches and war had both sides not understood each other. 

The problem is that the Kim Jung Un and President Trump appear to be very similar in temperament. They bluster and exaggerate, they demand absolute loyalty, and they are paranoid and narcissistic. They are are not deep thinkers, their closest advisers tend to be sycophants who praise their greatness and refuse to give them bad news or present contrary views. History shows us that such tendencies does not bode well for peace. When I see them act out their drama I am reminded of Tuchman’s descriptions of Czar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in the years leading up to World War I. Of Nicholas Tuchman wrote:

“The regime was ruled from the top by a sovereign who had but one idea of government—to preserve intact the absolute monarchy bequeathed to him by his father—and who, lacking the intellect, energy, or training for his job, fell back on personal favorites, whim, simple mulishness, and other devices of the empty-headed autocrat.”

Of Wilhelm she noted how he told 300 visitors at a State banquet in Berlin, that his uncle, English King Edward VII was: “He is Satan. You cannot imagine what a Satan he is!” As Tuchman wrote: “The Kaiser, possessor of the least inhibited tongue in Europe, had worked himself into a frenzy ending in another of those comments that had periodically over the past twenty years of his reign shattered the nerves of diplomats.” 

Character and temperament matter more than anything when nations teeter on the brink of war. Neither Trump, nor Kim Jung Un possess an ounce of character and their mercurial temperaments only add to the danger of war. On the American side we have to hope that some of the President’s more level headed advisers can reign him in, as far as the North Koreans, one doesn’t know what to hope for or expect. Tuchman wrote in her biography of General Joseph Stillwell that “History is the unfolding of miscalculations.” 

I only wonder what miscalculation will be next. 

Until tomorrow. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+


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The Day the Ghost Got Out of the Bottle: Reflections on Hiroshima 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-two years ago the world changed. A remarkably destructive weapon was introduced in combat, a single bomb that annihilated the city of Hiroshima Japan. The effects were immediate, 70,000 to 80,000 people were killed, tens of thousands of others wounded, many of whom would suffer from the effects of radiation and radiation burns the rest of their lives. Within days a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki with similar results, and Japan sued for peace. The Second World War was over and a new world was born, a world under the shadow of nuclear weapons.

The anniversary of that event yesterday is something that all of us should ponder with great trepidation as the world seems to lurch towards a day when such a weapon will be used again. The question should not be one of mere military or tactical expediency, but must consider the moral dimension of the use of these weapons as well as the whole concept of total war. 

In his book Hiroshima, John Hershey wrote: “The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us an answer to this question?” His question is worth considering. 

Up until April of this year I spend the last three and a half years teaching the ethics of war to senior military officers at a major U.S. Military Staff College. One of the things that we do in the class is to have the officers do presentations on different historical, or potential ethical problems faced by national policy makers, military commanders and planners. The goal is to have these men and women dig deep and examine the issues, and think about the implications of what they will do when they go back out to serve as commanders, staff officers, advisors to civilian leaders and planners.

In each class that I taught, at least one student dealt with the use of the Atomic bombs.  Most were Air Force or Navy officers who have served with nuclear forces. Unlike the depiction in the classic movie Dr. Strangelove or other depictions that show officers in these forces as madmen, the fact is that I was always impressed with the thoughtfulness and introspective nature of these men and women. They sincerely wrestle with the implications of the use of these weapons, and many are critical of the use of them at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is comforting to me to know that at least in the U.S. military that there are many who can reflect and do try to look at things not just from a purely military standpoint. Of course since I know humanity I figure that there are others in our ranks who are not so reflective or sensitive to the moral implications of the use of these weapons, among whom is our current President. The fact that the President acts on impulse and seems to have no moral compass, strategic sense, or anything apart than what benefits him causes me to shudder, especially when he has to actually confront North Korea on their ICBM and nuclear programs, not to mention the use of weapons of mass destruction by a terrorist group. As Barbara Tuchman wrote: “Strong prejudices and an ill-informed mind are hazardous to government, and when combined with a position of power even more so.”

I am no stranger to what these weapons, as well as chemical and biological weapons can do. Thirty years ago when I was a young Army Medical Service Corps lieutenant I was trained as a Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Officer. I learned the physical effects of exposure to these weapons, how many Rads of radiation a person could receive before they became sick and died. I learned what radiation exposure does to people at each stage. We trained with maps to chart fallout patterns, and the maps had the cities and towns that we lived in, this was Cold War Germany and yes both NATO and the Warsaw Pact expected that tactical nuclear weapons and chemical weapons would be used and we had to be able to operate in contaminated environments. We operated under the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction or MAD as a deterrent to war. It was chilling and made me realize that the use of these weapons today would be suicidal. When Chernobyl melted down we were in the fallout zone and were given instructions on what we could and could not do in order to minimize any possible exposure to radiation poisoning.

So when it comes to the first use of the Atomic bomb I am quite reflective. As a historian, military officer, chaplain and priest who has been trained on what these weapons can do I have a fairly unique perspective. Honestly, as a historian I can understand the reasons that President Truman ordered its use, and I can understand the objections of some of the bomb’s designers on why it should not be used. I’ve done the math and the estimates of casualties had there been an invasion of the Japanese home islands is in the millions, most of which would have been Japanese civilians. 


My inner lawyer can argue either point well, that being said the manner in which it was used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki troubles me. Hiroshima did have military targets, but a big part of the choice was its location, surrounded by hills, which created a bowl that would focus the explosion and maximized its effect. Many of the larger military and industrial targets lay outside the kill zone. The designers and officers on the committee wanted to show the Japanese, as well as the world the destructive power of the weapon. Those who opposed its use hoped that it would convince the leaders of nations that war itself needed to be prevented. These men wrestled with the issue even as they prepared the first bombs for deployment against Japan. The recommendations of the committee can be found here:

http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/ManhattanProject/Interim.shtml
Of the 150 scientists who were part of the bomb’s design team only 15% recommended the military use without a demonstration to show the Japanese the destructive power of the bomb and a chance to end the war. The poll of the scientists can be found here:

http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/ManhattanProject/Poll.shtml
Leo Szilard wrote a letter to Edward Teller seeking his support in sending a petition to President Truman regarding his opposition to the use of the weapon based on purely moral considerations. Szilard wrote:

“However small the chance might be that our petition may influence the course of events, I personally feel that it would be a matter of importance if a large number of scientists who have worked in this field want clearly and unmistakably on record as to their opposition on moral grounds to the use of these bombs in the present phase of the war.

Many of us are inclined to say that individual Germans share the guilt for the acts which Germany committed during this war because they did not raise their voices in protest against those acts, Their defense that their protest would have been of no avail hardly seems acceptable even though these Germans could not have protested without running risks to life and liberty. We are in a position to raise our voices without incurring any such risks even though we might incur the displeasure of some of those who are at present in charge of controlling the work on “atomic power.”

The entire text of Szilard’s letter can be found here:

http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/ManhattanProject/SzilardTeller1.shtml
The two petitions of the scientists to the President are here, the second letter concludes with this recommendation:

“If after the war a situation is allowed to develop in the world which permits rival powers to be in uncontrolled possession of these new means of destruction, the cities of the United States as well as the cities of other nations will be continuous danger of sudden annihilation. All the resources of the United States, moral and material, may have to be mobilized to prevent the advent of such a world situation. Its prevention is at present the solemn responsibility of the United States–singled out by virtue of her lead in the field of atomic power.

The added material strength which this lead gives to the United States brings with it the obligation of restraint and if we were to violate this obligation our moral position would be weakened in the eyes of the world and in our own eyes. It would then be more difficult for us to live up to our responsibility of bringing the unloosened forces of destruction under control.

In view of the foregoing, we, the undersigned, respectfully petition: first, that you exercise your power as Commander-in-Chief to rule that the United States shall not resort to the use of atomic bombs in this war unless the terms which will be imposed upon Japan have been made public in detail and Japan knowing these terms has refused to surrender; second, that in such an event the question whether or not to use atomic bombs be decided by you in the light of the consideration presented in this petition as well as all the other moral responsibilities which are involved.”

http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/ManhattanProject/SzilardPetition.shtml

http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/ManhattanProject/Petition.shtml

Ralph Bard, Undersecretary of the Navy wrote to Secretary of War Stimson his opinion on July 17th 1945:

“Ever since I have been in touch with this program I have had a feeling that before the bomb is actually used against Japan that Japan should have some preliminary warning for say two or three days in advance of use. The position of the United States as a great humanitarian nation and the fair play attitude of our people generally is responsible in the main for this feeling.”

I think that those who debate the history of this need to look at the entire picture and read the letters, the documents and take into account everything. My hope is that leaders, policy makers, legislators and we the people continue to work to eliminate nuclear weapons. It is true that the nuclear stockpiles of the United States and Russia are significantly smaller than when the Cold War ended, but even so what remain are more than enough to extinguish human life on the planet. Add to these the Chinese, French, British, Indian, Pakistani and the hundreds of undeclared weapons of Israel the fact is that there remains the possibility that they could be used. Likewise there are nuclear programs in other nations, especially North Korea, which given enough time or believing them necessary could produce weapons. But the North Koreans are not alone, they could easily be joined by others including Iran and Saudi Arabia. Add to this the possibility of a terrorist group producing or acquiring a weapon the world is still a very dangerous place.

That is the world that we live in and the world in which policy makers, legislators and educated people who care about the world must attempt to make safe. If you asked me I would say outlaw them, but that will never happen. Edward Teller wrote Leon Szilard:

“First of all let me say that I have no hope of clearing my conscience. The things we are working on are so terrible that no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls…. Our only hope is in getting the facts of our results before the people. This might help to convince everybody that the next war would be fatal. For this purpose actual combat use might even be the best thing…. But I feel that I should do the wrong thing if I tried to say how to tie the little toe of the ghost to the bottle from which we just helped it to escape…”

The ghost is out of the bottle, and nothing can ever get it back in. We can only hope and pray that reasonable people prevent any of these weapons from ever being used and that war itself would end.

Until tomorrow, 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Arrogance, Ignorance, Incompetence, and Dangers to National Insecurity 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Barbara Tuchman wrote: “Strong prejudices in an ill-formed mind are hazardous to government, and when combined with a position of power even more so.” 

Just a few words today as the dealings of the closest family members and associates of President Trump continue to ensure that his campaign’s relationships with multiple Russian contacts likely connected to the Putin regime will dominate our lives for quite a while. I’m not going to write much today because this story is going to gain traction until the President is either impeached or resigns from office, unless he blunders us into a big war, or there is a terrorist attack that allows him to get his own Reichstag Fire opportunity. 

Columnist Bob Herbert once wrote: ”

“There are few things more dangerous than a mixture of power, arrogance and incompetence. We are seeing that today with the members of the Trump administration and their true believer followers. The revelation of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails with Russian contacts and his meeting with them along with Trump’s campaign manager and son-in-law at a time when the President and all of his advisers denied all contacts with anyone related to Russia are astounding and reveal more than a smoking gun, but a complete disregard of American national security. Winning an elected appears to have mattered more to them than their county, the principles of our democracy, and our national security. 

Personally I am hard pressed as a former Reagan Republican and Cold Warrior to believe how anyone can defend the President’s proclivity to prefer Putin to our allies in NATO, and his willingness to throw NATO, American Intelligence agencies, diplomats, and law enforcement under the bus to defend Putin and his dictatorship. But they are and paradoxically had a Democrat been accused of one iota of what is being revealed about Trump’s family connections to the Russian interference in the American electoral process these same people would be calling for immediate impeachment. But they don’t care because they have so linked their fortunes to Trump that they cannot back down. As things get worse they will become more desperate but few of the True believers, mostly Evangelical Christians, will defect. They will fight to the end. 

That makes him and them very dangerous. They will create such chaos that it will undermine national security and leave us vulnerable to whatever the Russians or any other enemy might want to do, because the President will be so compromised that nobody will believe a word that he says. That poses danger to Americans around the world, our various allies, and to us at home. Well before there was any smoking gun I have been warning about the dangers posed by the arrogant, ignorant, and incompetence shown by the President and his closest advisors. 

Isaac Asimov wrote something that we should pay close attention to. He said “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” 

I worry that this administration and its true believer followers will resort to violence backed by the power of the state to maintain power. I would very much like to be wrong but there is nothing that the administration has done to assuage my fears. This is not good, it is not normal, and it is dangerous for all of us.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Troop Increases with No Plan: Afghanistan and Dien Bien Phu

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

As always back from Gettysburg on Monday brought to my mind the terrible human cost of war and the consequences of poor choices in matters of strategic and operational military decision making.

Tuesday morning I left my house to read the headline of the Virginia Pilot which stated that a decision had been made to increase troop strength in Afghanistan yet again after over 15 years of war in which the United States and its allies have lost over 3500 troops killed in action and the United States alone over 17,000 wounded without destroying the ability of the Taliban to recover from military defeats, or to ensure that the government of Afghanistan and its military could survive without massive US and NATO support.

The numbers of this new “surge” are massively smaller than that of President Obama, 3000 as compared to 100,000, and even the number of troops committed to the Afghanistan surge of Obama were insufficient to force the Taliban to the negotiating table. Once the US and NATO troops were withdrawn the corrupt Afghan government and military forces were unable to keep the Taliban down even as elements of the Islamic State moved into Afghanistan.

The situation reminded me of what the French faced in Indochina in 1953, and the battle of Dien Bien Phu which sealed the doom of the French colonial efforts in Indochina, at a terrible human cost. I wonder if we will even learn anything from history, but at least the French had a plan, albeit a terribly flawed one in 1953 and early 1954 where since 2002 the United States has had no real plan in Afghanistan.

Dien Bien Phu was an epic battle in a tragic war and most people neither know or care what happened in the valley where a small border post named Dien Bien Phu became synonymous with forgotten sacrifice. This year fewer remembrances are taking place. Some are in Vietnam and others in France.


General Vo Nguyen Giap

On May 7th 2011 in Hanoi a small remembrance was held to mark the fall of Dien Bien Phu and honor the victor, 101 year old General Vo Nguyen Giap at his home. Until his death in 2013 at the age of 102. That 2011 ceremony was one of the few remembrances held anywhere marking that battle which was one of the watersheds of the 20th Century. A half a world away in Houston Texas a small group of French veterans, expatriates and historians laid a wreath at the Vietnam War Memorial.  In Paris an ever shrinking number of French survivors gather each year on May 7th at 1815 hours for a religious service at the Church of Saint Louis des Invalides to remember the dead and missing of the French Expeditionary Corps lost in Indochina. A small number of other small ceremonies have been in the following years.

This battle is nearly forgotten by time even though it and the war that it symbolized is probably the one that we need to learn from before Afghanistan becomes our Indochina.

French Prisoners

On May 8th 1954 the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Viet Minh.  It was the end of the ill-fated Operation Castor in which the French had planned to lure the Viet Minh Regulars into open battle and use superior firepower to decimate them.  The strategy which had been used on a smaller scale the previous year at Na Son.

The French had thought they had come up with a template for victory based on their battle at Na Son in how to engage and destroy the Viet Minh. The plan was called the “Air-land base.”  It involved having strong forces in a defensible position deep behind enemy lines supplied by air.  At Na Son the plan worked as the French were on high ground, had superior artillery and were blessed by General Giap using human wave assaults which made the Viet Minh troops fodder for the French defenders.  Even still Na Son was a near run thing for the French and had almost no effect on Viet Minh operations elsewhere while tying down a light division equivalent and a large portion of French air power.

Viet Minh Regulars

The French took away the wrong lesson from Na-Son and repeated it at Dien Bien Phu.  The French desired to use Dien Bien Phu as a base of operations against the Viet Minh.  Unfortunately the French chose badly. The elected to occupy a marshy valley surrounded by hills covered in dense jungle. They elected to go light on artillery and the air head was at the far end of the range of French aircraft, especially tactical air forces which were in short supply.  To make matters worse the General Navarre, commander of French forces in Indochina informed that the French government was going to begin peace talks and that he would receive no further reinforcements elected to continue the operation.

French Paras Drop into Dien Bien Phu

Likewise French logistics needs were greater than the French Air Force and American contractors could supply.  French positions at Dien Bien Phu were exposed to an an enemy who held the high ground and were not mutually supporting. The terrain was so poor that French units were incapable of any meaningful offensive operations against the Viet Minh. As such they could only dig in and wait for battle. Despite this many positions were not adequately fortified and the artillery was in exposed positions.

Major Marcel Bigeard 

The French garrison was a good quality military force composed of veteran units. It was comprised of Paras, Foreign Legion, Colonials (Marines), North Africans and Vietnamese troops. Ordinarily in a pitched battle it would have done well, but this was no ordinary battle and their Viet Minh opponents were equally combat hardened, well led and well supplied and fighting for their independence.

Many of the French officers including Lieutenant Colonel Langlais and Major Marcel Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indochina including David Galula and Roger Trinquier would write books and develop counter-insurgency tactics which would help Americans in Iraq. Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of the Giap and his divisions.

Viet Minh Supply Column

Giap rapidly concentrated his forces and built excellent logistics support.  He placed his artillery in well concealed and fortified positions which could use direct fire on French positions. Giap also had more and heavier artillery than the French believed him to have.  Additionally he brought in a large number of anti-aircraft batteries whose positions enabled the Viet Minh to take a heavy toll among French Aircraft.  Giap also did not throw his men away in human assaults.  Instead he used his Sappers (combat engineers) to build protective trenches leading up to the very wire of French defensive positions.  In time these trenches came to resemble a spider web.

Without belaboring this post the French fought hard as did the Viet Minh. One after one French positions were overwhelmed by accurate artillery and well planned attacks.  The French hoped for U.S. air intervention, even the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh. They were turned down by a US Government that had grown tired of a war in Korea.

French Wounded Awaiting Medivac from Dien Bien Phu 

Relief forces were unable to get through and the garrison died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops. Colonials and Legionaries. The French garrison was let down by their high command and their government and lost the battle due to inadequate logistics and air power. The survivors endured a brutal forced march of nearly 400 miles on foot to POW camps in which many died. Many soldiers who survived the hell of Dien Bien Phu were subjected to torture, including a practice that we call “water boarding.” General Georges Catroux who presided over the official inquiry into the debacle at Dien Bien Phu wrote in his memoirs: “It is obvious that there was, on the part of our commanding structure, an excess of confidence in the merit of our troops and in the superiority of our material means.”

Few French troops caved to the Viet Minh interrogations and torture but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries.  Some French troops and their Algerian comrades would apply these lessons against each other within a year of their release. French soldiers and officers were shipped directly from Indochina to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency often against Algerians that they had served alongside in Indochina. The Algerian campaign proved to be even more brutal and it was lost politically before it even began.

The March to Captivity

The wars in Indochina and Algeria tore the heart out of the French Army. The defeats inflicted a terrible toll. In Indochina many French career soldiers felt that the government’s “lack of interest in the fate of both thousands of missing French prisoners and loyal North Vietnamese…as dishonorable.” Divisions arose between those who served and those who remained in France or Germany and created bitter enmity between soldiers. France would endure a military coup which involved many who had fought in Vietnam and Algeria. Having militarily won that war these men called The Centurions by Jean Lartenguy had been turned into liars by their government.  They were forced to abandon those who they had fought for and following the mutiny, tried, imprisoned, exiled or disgraced. Colonial troops who remained loyal to France were left without homes in their now “independent” nations. They saw Dien Bien Phu as the defining moment. “They responded with that terrible cry of pain which pretends to free a man from his sworn duty, and promises such chaos to come: ‘Nous sommes trahis!’-‘We are betrayed.’

The effects of the wars in French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam on the French military establishment were long lasting and often tragic. The acceptance of torture as a means to an end sullied even the hardest French officers. Men like Galula and Marcel Bigeard refused to countenance it, while others like Paul Aussaresses never recanted.

One of the most heart rending parts of the Dien Bien Phu story for me is that of Easter 1954 which fell just prior to the end for the French:

“In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

As a veteran of Iraq whose father served in Vietnam I feel an almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy, Algiers and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong. When it comes to this time of year I always have a sense of melancholy and dread as I think of the unlearned lessons and future sacrifices that we may be asked to make.

Legionaires on the Street Without Joy

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indochina were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor were the lessons of Algeria. It was an arrogance for which we paid dearly and I do not think that many in our political, media and pundits or military have entirely learned or that we in the military have completely shaken ourselves. We lost 54,000 dead in Vietnam, nearly 4500 in Iraq and close to 3500 in Afghanistan, not counting vast numbers of wounded. There are those even as we have been at war for 15 years who advocate even more interventions in places that there is no good potential outcome, only variations on bad. How many more American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen and our allies will need die without “victory” however badly we might try to define it?

French Navy F-8 Bearcat at Dien Bien Phu

Like the French our troops who returned from Vietnam were forgotten.The U.S. Army left Vietnam and returned to a country deeply divided by the war. Vietnam veterans remained ostracized by the society until the 1980s. As Lieutenant General Harold Moore  who commanded the battalion at the Ia Drang immortalized in the film We Were Soldiers recounted “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publicly questioned.”

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dienbeinphu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

I do pray that we will learn the lessons before we enter yet another hell. But I don’t think it is possible for us to learn anymore, only send more young men and women to die in an already lost cause. As the late Edwin Starr sang in his song War, what is it good for? 

Peace, love and understanding. Tell me, is there no place for them today. They say we must fight to keep our freedom, But lord knows there’s got to be a better way. War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing, say it again… 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Missiles and Messages: What is Trump trying to Convey?

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

If nothing else the events of last week, in particular President Trump’s decision to launch missiles at a Syrian airbase in response to Syria’s renewed use of poison gas on its own population sent a message to different leaders around the world. What that message is and how effective that it is depends on who heard it and how they interpreted it.

The actual type of strike was nothing new and it certainly was justified in relation to war crimes of the Assad regime. President Clinton used similar strikes as punitive measures against Iraq in the 1990s, President Bush used them against various targets outside of Iraq, and opting for a full invasion of that country. While President Obama tended to be more hesitant about the missile strikes he often used Special Forces and drones in many countries pursuant to the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Force pertaining to the War on Terror, he did use missile and air strikes in conjunction with NATO to help Libyan rebels overthrow the Ghaddafi regime.

That being said what is the message that the President was attempting to send, and how does it fit into a larger foreign policy and national security strategy? That is where my concerns lie in regard to this strike. As for me I would have loved to see a Tomahawk fly up Bashir Assad’s ass and blow him to the Hell of his choice, if Ghaddafi and Saddam deserved death, then Assad deserves it many times more. It’s probably a good thing that I’m not President because I think that those 60 Tomahawks would have been much more wisely employed by taking out Assad’s Presidential Palace and maybe taking out him in the process, but there would have been a much bigger blowback to that than striking the airfield, but I digress…

Going back to what I was saying, how does this fit into a broader foreign policy and national security strategy?

The timing of the strike, minutes after the final dinner between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping certainly sent a message to China and North Korea who it might have been the real audience. If the strike forces China to take stronger action to assist the United States in reducing the building North Korean nuclear threat, then it will have served a worthwhile purpose. A Chinese newspaper reported that this was the intent of the strike just yesterday.

But the effect depends on the rationality of the targeted audience. The Chinese are a rational actor, but the North Koreans may not be, so we have to wait and see. In the meantime the Administration dispatched the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group to Korea waters to coincide with a time of the year when the North Koreans typically become more active.

There is also the possibility that the message was also intended for Putin’s Russia, the Assad regime, and even Iran, but right now other than a few statements by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley there has not been any real follow up to the strike. Secretary of State Tillerson is going to Moscow this week so we may glean more from that meeting.

Of course there is the domestic political audience and based on how the Trump campaign and administration has dealt with truth there is the possibility that this is much more to do about Trump’s plunging poll ratings and as a distraction from the ballooning Russia-Trump election scandals.

Regardless of what message the missile strike was intended to convey, we still don’t know how it will play out and it could play out in any number of ways, good or bad, and it might even turn out to be an act of genius, I doubt the latter but it is a possibility.

That is why the Trump and his administration must determine what its policy will be, especially its diplomatic policy. The President must keep all options on the table, diplomatic, informational, military, and economic, but he must be very judicious in how he uses them. Believe me, I can disagree with and distrust the President all day long, but I don’t want him to screw this up. Too much is at stake.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Importance of not Letting Political Problems become Military Problems: The Example of George Marshall and Omar Bradley

George Marshall 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A short thought for this Sunday. General Omar Bradley said, “Wars can be prevented just as surely as they can be provoked, and we who fail to prevent them, must share the guilt for the dead.”

I wrote yesterday about my concerns with the leaders of the major world powers in relation to the crises in Syria and North Korea, in which the military option seems to be spoken of more often than any other. But ultimately these are political problems that will require much more than a military solution, for an ill-thought out through military action almost always results in worse problems. If these political problems in Syria and North Korea are not addressed as that, they will end by opening a Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences that will most likely be worse than we could imagine. If military action is necessary, it must be thought through and done in conjunction with a plan to not only win the war, but to win the peace as well. General George Marshall, whose guiding hand helped the Allies win the Second World War, and whose leadership as Secretary of State helped Europe recover from that war, paving the way to decades of peace and prosperity so correctly noted: “A political problem thought of in military terms eventually becomes a military problem.” It is kind of like Abraham Maslow’s “law of the instrument” in which he noted “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

So far the words coming out of the mouth of President Trump and his Secretary of State are all about the military option, and the President’s proposed cuts to the State Department and other agencies of “soft power” will ensure that when push comes to shove that the only tool he will have will be that of the military.

Until Tomorrow

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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