Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Why this, Why now? The Attacks on Tankers in the Gulf of Oman

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over the past few weeks I have been watching the situation building in the Persian Gulf, between Iran and its allies, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the various Gulf States, and Israel.

The situation has grown more tense through the threats of the Trump Administration, its increasingly punishing sanctions on Iran, and its deployment of additional Naval and Air Force units. Iran’s economy is on the verge of collapse, and over the past few weeks there have been attacks on tankers in the waters in the Gulf of Oman, which lays just outside the Straits of Hormuz, the vital passage through which passes much of the oil produced in the Middle East for the world markets, especially Asian markets.

I am a naturally suspicious person. When things like this happen I ask “why this, why these people, and why now?” Or in the cases when someone is telling me a story, “why this, why me, why now?” People lie to preachers and priests all,the time, nations and leaders of nations lie all the time. All the characters involved in this drama spin events and intelligence to shape the narrative they want others to believe. That includes the Mullahs of Iran, the Saudi Royal Family, the leaders of the Gulf States, Benjamin Netanyahu Of Israel, and President Trump, and his often conflicted and contradictory administration.

The United States has accused Iran of the attacks on these tankers, there is some evidence that points that way. The Iranians are protesting that their Gulf rivals are conducting these operations in order to frame them. Either, or both explanations are possible. The first two attacks involved very small explosive charges which did minor damage to the first two tankers, most likely placed by divers on the hills of the ships while at anchor. The second set of attacks did significant damage to two tankers. The United States Central Command produced a video of what might be an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Naval Corps boat removing something from one of the recently attacked ships.

But the theory offered by the United States, that these two ships were approached by Iranian craft which placed limpet mines on them, without reporting close encounters with Iranian craft. That would be highly unusual. The explanation by CENTCOM that the craft on the video was removing an unexplored limpet mine from the ship also seems unlikely. The Iranians knew that U.S. warships, equipped with helicopters were near the ships, such a move would be unusual for the Iranians, even the Revolutionary Guards, especially since one of the ships was Japanese owned and the head of the shipping line that owned the ship said that the crew reported an object flying at it. That could have been a rocket, missile, or even an armed drone.

Of course the Iranians could have done any of those things, as could have the Saudis, the Gulf States, the Israelis, or even the Americans.

The rapidity that Secretary of State Pompeo and President Trump labeled the Iranians as the attackers under such opaque circumstances has inadvertently backed the United States into a corner. We now have to prove our allegations. Regardless of who actually conducted the attacks, the refusal of the United States to wait for more forensic evidence of who committed the attack, the quick finger pointing at Iran was unwise. The release of a video which cannot actually identify what was removed from the tanker further obfuscates the situation.

The fact is that in the current situation, it is better to wait for conclusive evidence rather than further ratcheting up the tensions with yet unprovable allegations. There are other parties quite willing to drag the United States and Iran into war to suit their strategic aims.

When I see something like this I think of the Gulf of Tonkin incident which led to a massive escalation of the United States military involvement in Vietnam. But my question is, who is behind it?

I cannot answer that question, however, I can predict that this situation will escalate with very unpredictable and probably tragic consequences. I do hope that I am wrong, but on thing that I know from history, is that leaders in trouble at home, frequently instigate crisis abroad to divert attention from their domestic problems. If that is the case all of the possible subjects, with the possible exception of the Iranians have something to gain from this.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that the Iranians couldn’t be behind these attacks, but they would be low on my motivational index, unless the Revolutionary Guard has chosen to act independently of the Iranian government.

Right now I see more questions than answers, and a war brewing that shouldn’t happen. A war that will bring many changes to our world, and very likely to the life we now know in the United States.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Musing on Potential War With Iran

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am a veteran of Iraq, and have participated in maritime operations in the Arabian/Persian Gulf.

I am not comfortable with the steps the administration is taking with Iran, not that I am any fan of the Ayatollahs and their aggressive theocratic-religious-military-dictatorship. While I had always dreamed of a military career it was the failure of the attempt to rescue the hostages taken by the Iranians in April 1980, Operation Eagle Claw that was the tipping point for me to explore my options about joining the military. 1980 was the year I transferred to California State University, albeit to study history, but mostly because Judy, my girlfriend was going there. Once I got there I started checking out the various ROTC programs and enlisted as a simultaneous membership program between Army ROTC and the California Army National Guard in 1981.

I thought back then at sometime we would go to war with Iran but as years passed I thought that maybe both sides would find a way to peacefully co-exist, at least within limits, especially after my experiences in the Gulf where the regular Iranian Navy chased Iraqi Oil Smugglers into our hands. Of course there was the time some Revolutionary Guard patrol boats harassed our squadron Flagship, an Australian Special Forces Support ship and we sped to her assistance at full speed with guns and missiles armed and ready to go to war. They withdrew and nothing came out of it, but for about an hour it appeared that we would be the first U.S. Navy ship to engage the Iranians since the Tanker Wars Of the late 1980s. The fact is that the Revolutionary Guard Naval Corps operates in a different world from the regular Iranian Navy.

If we go to war, now I know two things about the Arabian/Persian Gulf and the Iranians have built up a formidable asymmetric naval and capability. A large number small submarines, not high tech, but in large numbers hard to kill. Likewise, would deploy large numbers of fast attack boats and craft armed with a variety of missiles and guns for swarm attacks on otherwise better armed and more capable warships. We prepared for those back in 2002, but the lethality of the Iranians has increased, as has their number of anti-ship missile batteries his increased exponentially, as has their number of short and medium range ballistic missiles. While their AirPower is antiquated by American standards they have better and more advanced air defense systems, supplied by Russia. They are also supported by Shia Muslim militants in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and even in Bahrain, headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet.

The Iranians have the capability of shutting down the Straits of Hormuz, and their allies in Yemen have showed the capability to attack shipping in the Bab El Mendeb, the Southern entrance to the Red Sea and a vital shipping lane in its own right.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has severely weakened our ties with key allies that routinely contribute Naval and air forces to the security of the Gulf.

Over the past few weeks an otherwise routine deployment to the region by the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, was sped up, B-52 bombers were deployed, and a proposal to send 120,000 troops to the Gulf was revealed. Four merchant ships were allegedly damaged by saboteurs, but no hard evidence points to Iran, and the damage to all the ships was minimal. The embassy staff in Baghdad was reduced over alleged threat increases that the American Commander in Iraq denies. The threats were reported by Israeli sources, much like the evidence that led us into war with Iraq in 2003.

I cannot put my finger finger on it, but something is not right about this situation. We are in no way ready for a major war with Iran, not with the possibility a potential war with North Korea, a trade war with China, and Russian threats to NATO allies or friendly nations in Eastern Europe.

This does not feel right to me. I’ve been around and seen and know too much. Maybe it’s my education military history, and high level Joint Operations education. Maybe it is my nearly 38 years serving in both the Army and Navy, including about 7 years with the Marines. Maybe it’s my long experience working with allies. I don’t know. All I know is that when domestic troubles embroil a national leader, the solution is often found in war. War allows leaders to do things impossible under peacetime constraints.

I can only speculate what is going on, but my hermeneutic os suspicion says to ask “why this administration, why Iran, why now?”

I wish I had the answer, but something doesn’t seem right, and I am worried for the many friends I have serving in the Gulf.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, iraq, middle east, Military, national security, US Navy, War on Terrorism

Americans should Always “Choose a President Wise, Well Read in History and Exceedingly Slow to Draw the Sword” Wise Words from the Late General Hal Moore in the Trump Era

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LTG Hal Moore as a Colonel in Vietnam

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Even since I was a child I was an avid reader of history, especially military history and biography. I idolized the military men that I read about and many of the things that they said and did, and almost always skewed them into an almost perverse form of patriotism. After the attacks of 9-11-2001 and during the run up to the invasion of Iraq I got into a internet argument with a man who later became the Presiding Bishop of my former denomination. He was and still is a very honorable man. He opposed the war on good historical, social, and moral grounds.

While he was very conservative theologically he had a strong sense of social justice and having come to adulthood during Vietnam war era he had a certain sense of distrust about military adventurism that I, an officer who at that time had some twenty years of military service did not fully appreciate. I responded to one of his comments with a quote from one of my favorite American Naval heroes, Captain Stephen Decatur who once remarked:

“Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”

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There is some truth in what Decatur said, but his words should not be used to justify imperialistic nationalism, racism, or militarism. Sadly back then that was exactly how I used it to attempt to shut down the arguments of an honorable man. If he ever reads this I hope that Bishop Craig Bates accepts my heartfelt apology for how I treated him back then.

It took me two combat tours, one at sea where I was a member of a boarding team, and the other in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province, and a lot more military and historical education that I realized how wrong that I was in doing this. Using patriotic quotes to buttress immoral, illegal, unconstitutional, and un-Christian policies is damnable. G. K. Chesterton noted: “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”

But, I am afraid that my former understanding of patriotism is exactly what many Americans follow today, regardless of their political affiliation or ideology seem to automatically defer to the decisions of the President, no matter what his party in launching military strikes. This has been largely true since the end of Second World War until now with the exception of the latter stages of the Vietnam War when the bankruptcy of American policy became evident.

No one wants to be “against the troops” and I am still one of those troops, but opposing nationalism, imperialism, and militarism is not the same as “supporting the troops.” The late Army Lieutenant General Hal Moore, who led his battalion into the Battle of the Ia Drang in 1965 and was memorialized in the film We Were Soldiers told West Point Cadets in 2005:

“The war in Iraq, I said, is not worth the life of even one American soldier. As for Secretary Rumsfeld, I told them, I never thought I would live long enough to see someone chosen to preside over the Pentagon who made Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara look good by comparison. The cadets sat in stunned silence; their professors were astonished. Some of these cadets would be leading young soldiers in combat in a matter of a few months. They deserved a straight answer.

The expensive lessons learned in Vietnam have been forgotten and a new generation of young American soldiers and Marines are paying the price today, following the orders of civilian political leaders as they are sworn to do. The soldiers and those who lead them will never fail to do their duty. They never have in our history. This is their burden. But there is another duty, another burden, that rests squarely on the shoulders of the American people. They should, by their vote, always choose a commander in chief who is wise, well read in history, thoughtful, and slow-exceedingly slow-to draw the sword and send young men and women out to fight and die for their country. We should not choose for so powerful an office someone who merely looks good on a television screen, speaks and thinks in sixty-second sound bites, and is adept at raising money for a campaign.

If we can’t get that part right then there will never be an end to the insanity that is war and the unending suffering that follows in war’s wake-and we must get it right if we are to survive and prosper as free Americans in this land a million Americans gave their lives to protect and defend.”

I remember reading General Moore’s back words then and despite my respect for him I didn’t see their truth, I still believed the lies of Donald Rumsfeld, the Bush Administration, and the Right wing media. I was wrong, and within two and a half years I would discover just how right that he was.

Today, some eleven years after I returned from Iraq I find that we now have a President whose historical, ethical, and policy blindness is subjected to his narcissistic and paranoid personality. He is a man who dodged the draft, avoided military service, condemned men and women wounded. killed, or captured in combat as losers while bragging that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in the 1980s was his Vietnam. Even now he is rushing a Carrier Strike Group and heavy bombers to challenge Iran for as of yet undisclosed threats to American interests in the Middle East, as well as suggesting military options to deal with the failing and flailing government of Venezuelan President Maduro.

War is a great way to distract from other real concerns, especially if it gives the President, any President, a chance to divert attention from his own malfeasance and criminality. Our Republic is in danger and I do not think that the danger will soon pass. I only wish that it would. Sadly, Hal Moore passed away in February of 2017. If he were alive today I am sure that he would be sounding the alarm.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Dien Bien Phu: The Soldiers and the Lessons Forgotten and Unlearned 65 Years Later

Dien Bien Phu War Remnants

Dien Bien Phu Today

It 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. Last year, the French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe laid a wreath at the French Monument at Dien Bien Phu, accompanied by several elderly veterans of the battle. The French veterans were met with kindness by their former opponents.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe at Dien Bien Phu’s French Memorial

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General Vo Nguyen Giap in 2011

Years before, 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. Giap was the last senior commander on either side at that time, and he died a year and a half later 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 used to 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 who were lost in Indochina. A small number of other small ceremonies were held as late as 2014. There appear to be no services to honor their memory this year.

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Legionnaires of the Second Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion at Dien Bien Phu 

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.

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Captured French soldiers are marched through the fields after their surrender at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. More than 10,000 French troops were captured after a 55 day siege . The French defeat ended nearly a century of French occupation of Indochina. (AP Photo/Vietnam News Agency)

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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.

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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. Instead of high ground they elected to occupy a marshy valley surrounded by hills covered in dense jungle. They went 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, General Navarre, commander of French forces in Indochina was informed that the French government was going to begin peace talks and that he would receive no further reinforcements. Despite this, he elected to continue the operation.

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French Paras Drop into Dien Bien Phu

Once on the ground 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, had more powerful artillery, and placed in defensive positions that 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 emplaced positions that were easily targeted by Viet Minh artillery and not hardened.

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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.

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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 firepower from well concealed positions enabled the Viet Minh to take a heavy toll among the French aircraft that attempted to supply the base.  Unlike at Na-Son, Giap 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. These trenches provided both concealment and protection from the French. In time these trenches came to resemble a spider web that enveloped the French base.

Without belaboring the point 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 the United States using nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh. They were turned down by a US Government that had grown tired of a war in Korea.

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Wounded Awaiting Medivac 

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.

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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)

Like many American veterans of Vietnam, many of the survivors of Dien Bien Phu made peace and reconciled with the Vietnamese soldiers who opposed them. While many still regretted losing they respected their Vietnamese opponents and questioned the leadership of their country and army. Colonel Jacques Allaire, who served as a lieutenant in a battalion under the command of MajorMarcel Bigeard reflected to a Vietnamese correspondent in 2014:

“I am now 92 years old and not a single day has gone by since the Dien Bien Phu loss that I haven’t wondered to myself about why the French army lost…Victory was impossible and too far away from us. The aircrafts were not able to give us relief. The French Government changed 19 times in nine years and that messed everything up. General Navarre did not know anything about the battlefield in Vietnam. After the Na San battle, the French commanders thought they could win and decided to attack at Dien Bien Phu, but they were wrong. It was Vietnamese soldiers who owned the hills, because it was their country… I respect my own enemies, who fought hard for national independence…Vietnam Minh soldiers were true soldiers with the will, courage and morality…” 

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.

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Legionairs 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 so far over 2400 in Afghanistan, and 20,000 wounded which does not count many of the PTSD or TBI cases. Add the casualties suffered by our NATO allies the number of allied dead is now over 3500. Some 36,000 Afghan National Army soldiers and Police officers have been killed. Afghan civilian deaths are estimated between 100,000 and 400,000, not counting the wounded or those killed in Pakistan. In January 2018 the Pentagon classified data on Afghan military, police, and civilian casualties.

The Afghan debacle has spanned three Presidential administrations so there accountability for it must be shared between Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, as well as their administrations, the military, and Congress. President Trump has shifted gears from the time he was a candidate when he pronounced the war “lost” to when addressed it as President on August 21st 2017. In his speech at fort Myer Virginia he said:

“When I became President, I was given a bad and very complex hand, but I fully knew what I was getting into:  big and intricate problems.  But, one way or another, these problems will be solved — I’m a problem solver — and, in the end, we will win.” 

But he also said:

“Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen…” 

There are those even as we have been at war for almost 18 years in Afghanistan who advocate even more interventions in places that there is no good potential outcome, only variations on bad. I do not know how the President who calls himself a “problem solver” will define winning, but how many more American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen will need die  for a “victory” that we cannot even define?

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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.”

I think that will be the case for those of us who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. Americans love to say they support the troops and are overwhelmingly polite and even kind when they encounter veterans. But that being said even as they do that they don’t are ignorant about our campaigns, battles, and sacrifices; and even worse fail to hold the government regardless of administration accountable for sending American troops into wars that they cannot win. That being said the Trump administration is talking up and ramping up for a possible showdown with Iran.

I guess that is why I identify so much with the men of Dien Bien Phu. The survivors of that battle are now in their nineties and dissolved their Veterans of Dien Bien Phu association in 2014 due to the difficulties most had in traveling.

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 Dien Bien Phu 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. A novel that has some really good insights into the battle and the French Paras and Legionnaires who fought in Indochina and Algeria is Jean Larteguy’s  The Centurions. 

I always find Fall’s work poignant.  The French journalist 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. He was killed on February 21st 1967 near Hue by what was then known as a “booby-trap” and what would now be called an IED while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

I do pray that we will learn the lessons before we enter yet another hell somewhere else.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Harlem Hell Fighters and Chicago Black Devils: Fighting Racism and Germans in 1918

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The theme of Black History Month last year was African Americans in Times of War to coincide with the centennial of the end of the First World War. That is not the theme this year, but what the African American men did in France during the Spring and Summer of 1918 still matters.

In 1918 African Americans who in spite of the prejudice, intolerance and persecution they endured at home as a result of Jim Crow, still loved their country. They were men who labored under the most difficult circumstance to show all Americans and the world that they were worthy of being soldiers and citizens of the United States of America. Their stories cannot be allowed to be forgotten, nor can we allow Jim Crow and the intolerance of other movements which demean and persecute those who love this country because of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality.

The African America men who volunteered included raw recruits as well as veteran soldiers who had already served full careers on the Great Plains. They were the Buffalo Soldiers, and when the United States entered the First World War, they were not wanted. Instead, the veterans  were left on the frontier and a new generation of African American draftees and volunteers became the nucleus of two new infantry divisions, the 92nd and 93rd.

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However in the beginning they too were kept out of action. These men were initially regulated to doing labor service behind the lines and in the United States. But finally, the protests of organizations such as the NAACP and men like W.E.B.DuBois and Phillip Randolph forced the War Department to reconsider the second class status of these men and form them into combat units.

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Despite this the leadership of the AEF, or the American Expeditionary Force of General John Pershing refused to allow these divisions to serve under American command. Somehow the concept of such men serving alongside White Americans in the “War to end All War” was offensive to the high command.

Instead these divisions were broken up and the regiments sent to serve out of American areas on the Western Front. The regiments of the 93rd Division were attached to French divisions. The 369th “Harlem Hellfighters” were first assigned to the French 16th Division and then to the 161st Division. The Hellfighters stayed in line and under fire for 191 days, longer than any other American regiment, they also suffered the highest casualties of any American regiment, nearly 1,500 during a time when only 900 replacements were received. 170 soldiers of the regiment were awarded the Croix de Guerre for the valor they displayed in combat.

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The first of the Hellfighters so honored was then Private, later Sergeant Henry Johnson who was nicknamed Black Death for his prowess as a fighter. With Private Needham Roberts, Johnson fought off a platoon sized German patrol. They both were wounded and when they ran out of ammunition Roberts fought with the butt of his rifle and Johnson a Bolo knife. When Roberts was knocked unconscious Johnson fought alone and saved his comrade from capture. Some estimate that Johnson killed 4 and wounded up to 30 Germans in the fight. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barak Obama on June 2nd 2015, because he had no living relatives it was accepted by Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson.

The 370th “Black Devils” from Chicago were detailed to the French 26th Division and the 371st and 372nd Infantry Regiments were assigned to the French 157th (Colonial) Division, which was also known as the Red Hand Division.

These units performed with distinction. The 371st was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and Légion d’honneur and Corporal Freddie Stowers of the 1st Battalion 371st was the only African American awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in the First World War. The 372nd was also awarded the Croix de Guerre and Légion d’honneur for its service with the 157th Division.

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The 157th (Colonial) Division had suffered badly during the war and been decimated in the unrelenting assaults in the trench warfare of the Western Front. It was reconstituted in 1918 with one French Regiment and two American regiments, the Negro 371st and 372nd Infantry. On July 4th 1918 the commanding General of the French 157th Division, General Mariano Goybet issued the following statement:

“It is striking demonstration of the long standing and blood-cemented friendship which binds together our two great nations. The sons of the soldiers of Lafayette greet the sons of the soldiers of George Washington who have come over to fight as in 1776, in a new and greater way of independence. The same success which followed the glorious fights for the cause of liberty is sure to crown our common effort now and bring about the final victory of right and justice over barbarity and oppression.”

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While many white American soldiers depreciated their French hosts and attempted to sow the seeds of their own racial prejudice against the black soldiers among the French, Southerners in particular warned the French of  the “black rapist beasts.” However the French experience of American blacks was far different than the often scornful treatment that they received from white American soldiers.

“Soldiers from the four regiments that served directly with the French Army attested to the willingness of the French to let men fight and to honor them for their achievements. Social interactions with French civilians- and white southern soldiers’ reactions to them- also highlighted crucial differences between the two societies. Unlike white soldiers, African Americans did not complain about high prices in French stores. Instead they focused on the fact that “they were welcomed” by every shopkeeper that they encountered.”

Official and unofficial efforts by those in the Army command and individual soldiers to stigmatize them and to try to force the French into applying Jim Crow to laws and attitudes backfired. Villages now expressed a preference for black over white American troops. “Take back these soldiers and send us some real Americans, black Americans,” wrote one village mayor after a group of rowdy white Americans disrupted the town.”

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The citation for Corporal Stowers award of the Medal of Honor reads as follows:

Corporal Stowers, distinguished himself by exceptional heroism on September 28, 1918 while serving as a squad leader in Company C, 371st Infantry Regiment, 93d Division. His company was the lead company during the attack on Hill 188, Champagne Marne Sector, France, during World War I. A few minutes after the attack began, the enemy ceased firing and began climbing up onto the parapets of the trenches, holding up their arms as if wishing to surrender. The enemy’s actions caused the American forces to cease fire and to come out into the open. As the company started forward and when within about 100 meters of the trench line, the enemy jumped back into their trenches and greeted Corporal Stowers’ company with interlocking bands of machine gun fire and mortar fire causing well over fifty percent casualties. Faced with incredible enemy resistance, Corporal Stowers took charge, setting such a courageous example of personal bravery and leadership that he inspired his men to follow him in the attack. With extraordinary heroism and complete disregard of personal danger under devastating fire, he crawled forward leading his squad toward an enemy machine gun nest, which was causing heavy casualties to his company. After fierce fighting, the machine gun position was destroyed and the enemy soldiers were killed. Displaying great courage and intrepidity Corporal Stowers continued to press the attack against a determined enemy. While crawling forward and urging his men to continue the attack on a second trench line, he was gravely wounded by machine gun fire. Although Corporal Stowers was mortally wounded, he pressed forward, urging on the members of his squad, until he died. Inspired by the heroism and display of bravery of Corporal Stowers, his company continued the attack against incredible odds, contributing to the capture of Hill 188 and causing heavy enemy casualties. Corporal Stowers’ conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and supreme devotion to his men were well above and beyond the call of duty, follow the finest traditions of military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him and the United States Army.

Corporal Stowers is buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. The award of the Medal of Honor was not made until 1991 when President George H. W. Bush presented it to Stowers’ two surviving sisters.

The contrast between the American treatment of its own soldiers and that of the French in the First World War is striking. The fact that it took President Harry S. Truman to integrate the U.S. Military in 1948 is also striking. African Americans had served in the Civil War, on the Great Plains, in Cuba and in both the European and Pacific Theaters of Operation in the Second World War and were treated as less than fully human by many Americans.

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Men of the 371st and 372nd Infantry Regiments of the French 157th Division Awarded the Croix d’Guerre

Even after President Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, African Americans, as well as other racial minorities, women and gays have faced very real discrimination. The military continues to make great strides, and while overt racist acts and other types of discrimination are outlawed, racism still remains a part of American life.

Today things have changed, and that in large part is due to the unselfish sacrifice in the face of hatred and discrimination of the men of the USCT and the State Black Regiments like the 54th Massachusetts and the Louisiana Home Guards who blazed a way to freedom for so many. Those who followed them as Buffalo Soldiers and volunteers during the World Wars continued to be trail blazers in the struggle for equal rights. A white soldier who served with the 49thMassachusetts wrote “all honor to our negro soldiers. They deserve citizenship. They will secure it! There would be much suffering in what he termed “the transition state” but a “nation is not born without pangs.”

Unfortunately racial prejudice is still exists in the United States. In spite of all the advances that we have made racism still casts an ugly cloud over our country. Despite the sacrifices of the Buffalo Soldiers, the leaders of the Civil Rights movement and others there are some people who like the leaders of the AEF in 1917 and 1918 cannot stomach having blacks as equals or God forbid in actual leadership roles in this country.

A good friend of mine who is a retired military officer, a white man, an evangelical Christian raised in Georgia who graduated from an elite military school in the South, who is a proponent of racial equality has told me that the problem that many white people in the South have with President Obama is that “he doesn’t know his place.” Yes racism is still real and rears its ugly head all too often.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Waiting for the National Emergency

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am musing about President Trump’s treat to declare a National Emergency if Congress does not bend the knee and surrender it’s Constitutional powers under Article One of the Constitution by not appropriating funding for the construction of his border wall, the one that he promised that Mexico would pay for on many occasions.

Honestly, I have always believed that Trump will declare a National Emergency to consolidate dictatorial powers. However, I did not believe that he would use such a poorly concocted plan to do so. I realize that his contempt for the Constitution, our system of government, the Congress, the Courts and all of our institutions runs deep in him, but if he attempts an end run around Congress by doing this I am positive that the Court challenges will doom it, were emergency powers restricted to finding a way to build his Wall, however, a state of emergency proclamation gives the President nearly dictatorial powers should he or maybe in the future, she decide to use them. Congress needs to reign those powers in, but that won’t happen anytime soon.

Declaring a state of emergency simply to bypass Congress for a pet project will create a Constitutional crisis, and if you can imagine it, throw the country into chaos.

It is not enough that the government shutdown has been going on three weeks. It is not if that the global and the United States economy is not showing signs of weakness.

It is not as if foreign powers, real enemies such as Russia are continuing to attack our institutions at home and interests abroad.

It is not as if authoritarian regimes are taking over power in former democracies, with President Trump’s full approval.

Likewise, it’s not as if that the administration is not in chaos, that the resignation of the last remaining adults in the room, and the indictments, or coming indictments of Trump allies by the investigation of Robert Muller, and the coming hearings in the House Of Representatives will not cut the President’s feet out from under him.

He will be fully revealed for what he is and always has been, and what his most faithful supporters have excused and ignored.

The President is habitual liar, a narcissistic sociopath with delusions of Godhood, and a two bit owner of a family business who has destroyed every business he has led, bamboozled and defrauded and every investor or contractor who put their faith in him, and betrayed every one of his wives. Though he avoided military service, he has derided and mocked honorable military men, men who fought in combat, put their lives on the line, and even were wounded or taken prisoners. To Trump, men like James Mattis, John McCain, Stanley McChrystal, William McRaven, John Allen, John Kelly, H. R. McMaster, John Kerry, and so many others were failures, and he, who dodged the draft, bragged that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases was his personal Vietnam.

So I await his declaration and I hope that the Republicans in the Senate will finally grow a set of testicles and remember that their oath is to the Constitution, not the President. I hope that the courts will stop it, and I hope that military leaders will put their feet down and not obey an unconstitutional and unethical order.

Again, let me reiterate that I have always believed that Trump will try to use a state of emergency, his Reichstag Fire moment, to secure his hands or on power, but I thought he would use a war, a major terrorist attack, financial collapse, or natural disaster to do it. In those kinds of events he would probably have the support of the majority of Americans and Congress, but for this ham fisted attempt to bypass Congress and defy the Constitutional separation of powers should be his undoing if he actually tries it.

Regardless of if he does it or not, it is important for every man and woman who has sworn an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic also applies to defending it against a rogue President who defies the Constitution and collides with foreign powers against his own country. Until Trump such was unthinkable, no President, even the most callous or criminal has ever sank to the moral, legal, and ethical depths of this President.

So, I wait to see what happens. As I do I remember and reflect upon the words of German General Ludwig Beck:

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.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, Foreign Policy, History, laws and legislation, leadership, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary

”For Hate is Strong and Mocks the Song Of Peace on Earth Goodwill to Men” Henry Wordsworth Longfellow and Christmas 2018


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I could be writing about the travails being inflicted on the country and the world by President Donald Trump, but I do enough of that. Christmas is coming and even when I don’t explicitly write about Teump, the message of the season stands against him and against all that he stands.

Looking at the news of the week; the resignation on principle by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the abandonment of the Kurds in Syria to the Turks, Russia, as ISIS, the crashing stock markets, and the completely preventable partial government shutdown brought about President Trump and his most fanatical followers, it is easy to despair. Frankly, there are many times that I do, and Inhave to remember how people before us went through great trials and tribulations.

The great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned these words of hope on Christmas Day, 1863:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Christmas is coming and I feel that Longfellow’s words are as pertinent today as when he first penned them. The thought of what is to come in the next few years, in the United States and in many other liberal democracies bodes ill for our future as authoritarian and often xenophobic leaders rise to power. The world that we grew up is is passing away, and what comes in its place, a dystopian world where hope will be a rare commodity beckons.

Longfellow’s words became the heart of the song I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.  I have heard it a number of times in the past few days and each time it really touches me.

The song has been recorded in a number of versions by different artists over the years. However, the words of the song go back to the American Civil War. It began as a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day 1863 following the serious wounding of his son Charles, a Lieutenant in the Union Army at the Battle of New Hope Church, and the death of his wife in a fire two years before. Longfellow had much to despair about, but he maintained a faith in God, as well as the founding principles of the United States.

His words are haunting. Probably because they demonstrate the profound tension that lies at the heart of the Incarnation, which is the heart of Christmas and the Christian faith. the tension, played out so well in the song is the existence of a message of peace and reconciliation in a world where war and hatred of many kinds rip human beings apart coupled with the tragic inability of Christendom, especially American Conservative Evangelicalism to even come close to the message of Christmas.

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along th’ unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

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The reality of this is seen in the third verse. It is a verse that echoes throughout history and seems to be true even today, in fact it seems to be the most real as we deal with war, hatred, terrorism, killing in the name of God, and political fratricide.

And in despair I bowed my head

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

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The interesting part about the songs as opposed to the poem is that they omit three of Longfellow’s verses that admittedly in a reunited country would not help record sales. Those verses speak to the heart of the Civil War.

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

But Longfellow hears in the bells something more powerful. It is the message of Christmas and the incarnation. The message that justice and peace will finally embrace.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till ringing, singing on its way

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

The song has been recorded many times by many artists. I like the version sung by Frank Sinatra, which the music was composed by Johnny Marks, composer of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Another earlier version composed by John Baptiste Calkin has been recorded by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash among others.

 

 

As wars rage in the Middle East, tensions rise in Asia, Africa and even Eastern Europe while the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preachers, led by the American President rage as we go into another, and even more perilous year with the possibility of nuclear war more probably than not, people still look for hope.

Longfellow, who lost so much in a short time in the midst of a terrible Civil War, reminds us that in such times, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”

In a time like this when the world led by the American President seems to be hurtling into the abyss, it is important to remember Longfellow’s words and the message of Christ and the Incarnation. The child born as an outcast in a manger would die as a criminal, crucified by an occupying power with the full support of the leaders of the occupied country. As the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” 

Yes, the wrong shall fail, and the right prevail, but it in the age of Trump it will certainly involve much travail. As for the travail, it is just beginning.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, civil war, faith, Foreign Policy, History, middle east, music, Political Commentary