Category Archives: iraq,afghanistan

“I imagined leave would be different from this” September 11th 2001 at Seventeen Years

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

September 11th is a day that always makes me more introspective. It brings back so many memories, some that I wish I could forget; but I cannot get the images of that day out of my mind. The burning towers, the people jumping to their deaths to escape the flames, and the scenes of devastation. I knew one of the victims in the attack on the Pentagon, an Army Lieutenant Colonel, Karen Wagner who commanded a Medical training company at Fort Sam Houston where I was serving as the Brigade Adjutant in 1987 and 1988. She was a very nice person, very gracious and decent, admired by everyone who knew her; I was shocked to see her name on the casualty list after the attack.

The emotions that I feel on the anniversary of these terrorist attacks which claimed the lives of so many innocent people, and which devastated so many families, still haunts me, and my subsequent service, especially in Iraq has changed me. Years after he returned from his time in the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence; the immortal Lawrence of Arabia wrote to a friend, “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.” I often feel that way.

Seventeen years ago I was getting ready to go to the French Creek Gym at Camp Le Jeune North Carolina where I was serving as the Chaplain of Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. I had returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea just two months before and was preparing to transfer to the USS Hue City, a guided missile cruiser stationed in Mayport, Florida.

At the time of the attack I had already been in the military for over 20 years and I had actually taken a reduction in rank to transfer from the Army, where I was a Major in the reserves, to the Navy to serve on active duty. In those previous 20 years I had served overseas during the Cold War along the Fulda Gap. I had been mobilized to support the Bosnia mission in 1996, and I had just missed being mobilized for Operation Desert Storm as my unit was awaiting its mobilization orders when the war ended. I had done other missions as well as the deployment to the Far East that returned from in July 2001; but nothing prepared me for that day. Like other career military officers I expected that we would be at war again and thought it might be back in the Middle East, and probably a result of some fool’s miscalculations; but like the American officers who were serving at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, I never expected what happened that morning.

Tuesday, September 11th 2001 had started like so many days in my career. Routine office work, a couple of counseling cases and what I thought would be a good PT session. I was about to close out my computer browser when I saw a little headline on Yahoo News that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I paid little attention and figured that a private plane, something like a Cessna piloted by an incompetent had inadvertently flown into the building.

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That delusion lasted about two minutes. I got in my car and the radio, tuned to an AM talk station had a host calling the play by play. He started screaming “oh my God another airliner flew into the other tower.” Seeking to see what was happening I went to the gym where there were many televisions. I got there and saw the towers burning, with stunned Marines and Sailors watching silently, some in tears. I went back out, drove to my office and got into uniform. After checking in with my colonel a made a quick trip to my house for my sea bags and some extra underwear, and personal hygiene items. When I got back the headquarters we went into a meeting, and the base went on lock down mode. The gates were closed and additional checkpoints, and roadblocks established on base. Marines in full battle-rattle patrolled the perimeter and along the waterfront. I did not leave the base until the night of the 15th when things began to settle down and we all went into contingency planning mode for any military response to the attacks.

My wife, who as waiting for a doctor’s appointment with a friend saw the attacks on live television and knew when the first plane struck she told her friend that it was terrorism. Her friend responded “that damned Saddam Hussein.” Like so many of us who initially thought this, my wife’s friend was wrong.

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Those were tumultuous days, so much fear; so much paranoia; and so much bad information as to who committed the attacks and what was going to happen next.

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A few months later I deployed aboard Hue City to the Middle East where we supported the air operations in Afghanistan, anti-terrorist operations off the Horn of Africa and in Operation Southern Watch and the U.N. Oil Embargo against Iraq. I then did three years with Marine Security Forces, traveling around the world to support Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team companies. For three years I was on the road one to three weeks a month traveling to the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific and many parts of the United States. Then I was promoted and transferred to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Two, from which I was deployed with my assistant to Iraq, where we served as members of the Iraq Assistance Group in all Al Anbar Province supporting small teams of Marine Corps, Army and Joint Force adviser teams to the Iraqi Army, Border troops, Port of Entry police, police and highway patrol.

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When I returned from Iraq I was a changed man and while I am proud of my service I am haunted by my experiences. One cannot go to war, see its devastation, see the wounded and dead, as well as the innocents traumatized by it. One cannot get shot at, or be in enclosed rooms, meeting with people that might be friends, or might be enemies, and while everyone else is armed, you are not.

War changed me, and my homecoming was more difficult than I could have imagined. I never felt so cut off from my country, my society, my church, or even other chaplains. My experience is not uncommon among those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter those who have served in almost any modern war. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic All Quite on the Western Front wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

That being said I would not trade my experience for anything. The experience of PTSD and other war related afflictions has been a blessing as well as a curse. They have changed my world view and made me much more emphatic to the suffering and afflictions of others, as well when they are abused, mistreated, terrorized and discriminated against. These experiences along with my training as a historian, theologian, and hospital chaplain clinician before and after my tour have given me a lot bigger perspective than I had before.

But I have to live with all of the memories. Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

As hard as this has been these are good things, and as I go on I wonder what will happen next. I do not think that the wars and conflicts which have followed in the wake of the 9-11 attacks will be over for years, maybe even decades. I pray for peace, but too many people, some even in this country seem to live for the bloodlust of war. One can only hope and as my Iraqi friends say, Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

I wonder too, if the words of T.E. Lawrence reflecting on his service in the Arab Revolt are not as applicable to me and others who came back from Iraq, “We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” I have lost too many friends in these wars, including men who could not readjust to home, many like me. I have seen the men and women, broken in body, mind and spirit and I wonder if any of it was worth it, and if in some of our response, especially the invasion of Iraq has not made a bad situation even worse, and turned the war into a generational conflict.

As for me, I am now an old guy by military standards. I recently celebrated 37 years of service and will, God willing, retire next year. Sadly, I know all too well that those who I have worked with, and those who are yet to enlist will be continuing to fight a war which seems to be without end long after I retire.

Yesterday and today there were and will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting. As I mentioned last night I did not take place in this year’s commemoration of the event at my base because I had been asked by name to do a funeral for a retired Navy Chief at a local veterans cemetery followed by more planning and preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Florence.

So please, have a good day and whatever you do do not forget those whose lives were forever changed by those dastardly attacks and all that has transpired in the years since. Honestly I did not think that we would still be at war today. It is hard for me to believe that we still are at war and that there is no end in sight.

As Erich Maria Remarque wrote “I imagined that it would be different…”

At the same time I do hope that things will get better and that some semblance of peace will return to the world.

Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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What Have We Done? Moral Injury and Our Unending Wars

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is not every day that one reads about himself in a book by a Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent and author. I did that this week. Back in 2014 I was interviewed by David Wood for his book What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars. After the interview I kept going with life struggling with the daily effects of PTSD, TBI, and Moral Injury in my life. The book came out in late 2016 or early 2017 but I didn’t know that it had until Sunday when I read some comments by Army Chaplains in a Facebook Group that I am fortunate to be a member.

When I found out the book had been published I immediately purchased it on Amazon Kindle and will get a hard cover copy as well. Of course I search for my name and went to the chapter in which David told my story. It was very good, so I began reading the book from the beginning. David is an exceptional writer and having spent many years in combat zones and embedded in American combat units at war he has earned his stripes, and what he writes is so vivid and real that to me it brought back too many memories, painful memories of the war and what I experienced when I came home flooded me. I again recalled the words of the great Union General and hero of Little Round Top, Gouverneur Warren that he wrote his wife in 1867:

“I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

It was not reading my story that got me, it was reading the stories of Marines, soldiers, and other Chaplains that got me. I knew that I wasn’t alone. I have seen carnage. I have been shot at, and I have been in danger many times, always unarmed; that I would do again. In fact in my FITREP debrief from my commanding officer and executive officer both noted that where I stood out the most was in crisis situations dealing with death and trauma. Truthfully, that is how I am wired and it has always been that way. Sadly my current billet, which will certainly unless everything goes to shit will be the one that I will retire from is more suited to men or women who do well in the bureaucracy and management. Outside of crises and trauma situations I do best teaching and writing, but I digress…

David’s book triggered memories. I had to make a note not to read it before bedtime because on Sunday night when I finished the second chapter I took my sleep meds, put on my CPAP, and had my therapy puppy Izzy snuggled around my head. I closed my eyes and the flashbacks began. When I finally went to sleep the nightmares began. They have not ended. The Alsatian German Soldier, Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”

While I write about my private war with PTSD and Moral Injury I say little or nothing about it now to superiors, in fact after serving with me for over a year my Commander didn’t know how I struggle. I admitted it to him during the debrief and he was surprised. I guess that is a good thing because since “coming out” with PTSD in 2009 having already dealt with it for a year discovered that I had become one of the untouchables. Though I was selected for promotion to Commander in 2010 I was shunted off into billets that made me noncompetitive for promotion to Captain. I realized that in 2011 when the newly promoted deputy Chief of Chaplains treated me as if I was a nonentity when she made her tour of the commands at the base I was then serving. In 2014 when the Washington Times published an article on their front page about my story it went completely unacknowledged by the Chief of Chaplains office in Washington DC. I didn’t even get a call from a staff member asking if I was okay.

I can understand how Gouverneur Warren felt when he was cast off at the end of the Civil War, but then I also remember how a Comcast seasoned EOD Master Chief Petty Officer told me that “you can admit and get help for PTSD but you will never again get assigned to the billets that get you promoted.” He was right and truthfully I am okay with that, I can say that I am happy where I am now, not to say that if given the chance I wouldn’t hesitate to go in harms way again. My nightmares this week seem to lead me to believe that that may happen before I retire from the military, but again I digress…

I highly recommend David’s book to you. It is probably the best account of the war and its unintended consequences that I have ever read. Please read it if you really care about those of us who have been to war in Iraq, Afghanistan, or to go back further Vietnam have experienced. When you are done with it you too may ask What have we done?

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Please Don’t Thank Me for Serving for It is All I Have Ever Thought of Doing

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over the Memorial Day Weekend I had a fascinating experience. It came about because I got fed up with what I hear a lot in so-called conservative circles that liberals, progressives, and Democrats are not patriotic or supportive of the military. The vast majority of these people have never served in the military but love to use their supposed support of endless wars as patriotism while giving lip service to those who serve as they display their ignorance of the Constitution and the military.

The fact of the matter is that the military is not monolithic, it is at the same time one of the most conservative yet progressive institutions in the United States. It and the people who serve in it are not perfect and we do have our share of scoundrels and scalawags in our ranks.

The institution itself has many faults and defects and there is much to be criticized in the way the services are managed and employed. We stand for ideals that we often fall far short of attaining. While we are integrated and making great strides that shame much of the civilian world there is still racial prejudice and discrimination. There is also a deeply ingrained culture of misogyny that shows itself all too often, and despite many changes and advances a sizable amount of homophobia. Despite all,of that I can say that much has changed for the positive since I joined in 1981.

We all join for a variety of reasons, an ideal, a challenge, a chance to prove ourselves; or a profession that has a measure of respect and offers us educational and health care benefits for us and our families that are hard to match in the civilian world. But those benefits often come with a lot of sacrifices that cannot be matched in the civilian world.

I’m old in terms of the military. I grew up in a Navy family and my dad, a career Navy Chief Petty Officer served in Vietnam. I had friends in grade school who lost their dads in that war.

I’ve served continuously first in the Army and then in the Navy since 1981. I do not recall a day since I was a child that I did not want to be in the military and serve this country. My parents tried to discourage me from joining and encouraged me to at least try college for a year. I’m glad that the did because my first semester I met my wife Judy who over all of these years has stayed with me through almost two full military careers; one of 17 1/2 years in the Army and another of almost 20 years in the Navy, and by the way I didn’t tell her I was joining the Navy until I started the process. Marriage wise this was not a smart thing to do but I wasn’t the first or last soldier or sailor to do such a thing, the great Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain, who I find a lot in common with did the same to his wife when he volunteered to serve as the Lieutenant Colonel of the 20th Maine in 1862.

But I digress and boy did I chase that rabbit, so anyway, this started in response to some words by a real nut case who probably the most vocal supporter of President Trump in terms of marketing and propaganda. The man, Bill Mitchell ( @mitchellvii ) is a businessman from North Carolina who has made a mini-empire for himself on Twitter and now has a radio program. He has a long history of making incendiary comments about liberals, progressives, Democrats, immigrants, and pretty much anyone who criticizes the President. His father was an Army Officer but he has never spent a day in uniform.

That is his right under the First Amendment but it doesn’t mean that he should be allowed to get away it his slander of other Americans without being called on it. something that so offended me as an American and as a career military officer and combat vet that I responded to him.

He tweeted:

Is anyone else amused when we see the Left attempting to stand up for the honor of our fallen troops?

The Left HATES our troops and stand FOR everything they died to PREVENT.

I was offended because in my service in the military that began when I was a Republican in 1981 and since I returned home from Iraq in 2008 and switched my political affiliation, I have never viewed those who I have served alongside by their political or religious affiliations. They all wear, or wore the same uniform that I do and are my brothers and sisters.

Unlike Mr. Mitchell, I do not see military service in terms of the partisan political divide. While we may have political, religious, or other differences we are all still Americans who have volunteered to serve this nation, for the past 17 years in time of war. For the most part we bury those distinctions to serve alongside each other. That has become harder over the past decade or so but even so when you go into harm’s way and get shot at by the enemy those things do not matter so much.

My reply was simple and to the point. I said:

I am a liberal, a combat vet and have served for 37 years and am still on active duty. You have no honor or decency.

I was surprised at the response of people. This man has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, but I got no attacks on my self, my views, or my character as so often happens on social media. Instead I stared getting thanked for my service by a wide variety of people. I was somewhat embarrassed by the first thank you so I responded by saying:

Appreciate it but no thanks needed, it is my honor and duty…

The responses to that Tweet were also humbling and very gracious, truthfully I really don’t know how to respond. This is who and what I am. I have volunteered to go into conflict more times thanI have been allowed and the times I did get to go I got to do things that are unusual for a Chaplain, I have put myself in harms way and on at least one occasion had to be pulled out of danger by my shipmates on an embargoed freighter coming out of Iraq under the U.N. sanctions that followed the First Gulf War. On those operations I not only was unarmed but since there were not enough body armor plates for all the members of the boarding teams I went without. In Iraq I was always the one unarmed member of any advisor team that I was with.

I came home from Iraq incredibly goofed up with chronic, severe PTSD and mild TBI. I have spent a decade trying to fight those demons and I am now doing pretty well. But I came home and there are men and women who are far braver than I ever dared to be, men and women who gave all and didn’t come home. There are others who not only bear the unseen wounds of PTSD, TBI, and Moral Injury, but who have also suffered terrible physical wounds. There are also others who could not defeat the emotional and physical costs of war who either died or took their own lives after returning from war, or after leaving the service. I know too many who suffer or have lost their lives to consider someone as flawed as I am to admire, I just do what I am called to do, they have given all. They are the real heroes to me and I try to use my voice to speak for them.

Likewise, all the men and women that I served with, especially in combat operations are my brothers and sisters. We are to use William Shakespeare’s words, my band of brothers. As Shakespeare wrote in his play Henry V:

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

I am an idealist when it comes to military service and serving my county. I have tried to do my best to follow the words of Joshua Chamberlain, a flawed but great man. He said:

“It is something great and greatening to cherish an ideal; to act in the light of truth that is far-away and far above; to set aside the near advantage, the momentary pleasure; the snatching of seeming good to self; and to act for remoter ends, for higher good, and for interests other than our own.”

So I while I do appreciate the kind words of everyone I am just following what I believe has been a calling for all of these years. I cannot imagine doing anything different except to teach and write when I finally retire from the Navy in the next two to three years. I could retire today, and it would be easier on me, but I still feel the call to serve. I just pray that the man that Mr. Mitchell has turned into his god does not take us in to any disastrous wars or destroy our Constitution and system of government during that time.

I do not believe in the old adage “my country right or wrong,” I know that as much good as has been done by the United States that our leaders, and people have done many wrongs, on our own continent and abroad. Today I am terrified by things that I see the President and administration doing, actions that threaten the Constitution, civil rights, and peace. So in my closing years of military service I keep the words of the German General Ludwig Beck, who did in the attempt to kill Hitler and end Nazi rule close to my heart:

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

I hope that this all makes sense, so until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, faith, iraq,afghanistan, mental health, Military, Political Commentary, Tour in Iraq

Forgotten Soldiers: Remembering the Men of Dien Bien Phu 64 Years After the Battle

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.

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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. 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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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 17 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.

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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“My Oath did not Expire When I took off the Uniform” Ralph Peters Resigns from Fox News

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have called Fox News and many of its hosts a propaganda network for some time. At one time, back in the late 1990s and up until I went to Iraq in July of 2007 I watched Fox nearly nonstop along with my daily diet of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on the radio. It took a number of years of their listening incessantly to their propaganda before I became revulsed by it while serving in Iraq.

Sitting in a dining facility late one evening after coming back from an intensive mission I saw some Fox News talking heads discussing the war on a television. What they were discussing was pure propaganda and had no relationship to what was going on in that country. At that point I made up my mind that what I had tried to believe was true was all lies; lies spun by the Bush administration and aided by the supposedly “Fair and Balanced” team at Fox News. When I returned home in 2008 every time I heard a Fox pundit or saw them on the news I became very angry. To this day I cannot watch them and when I see the lies and propaganda that they spread today I can only compare many of their hosts to the propagandists of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, except neither the Nazis or the Soviets claimed to be ‘fair and balanced.”

Yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to find out that retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters quit his post as a commentator for Fox. I met him in 1999 not long after I had transferred from the Army to the Navy and was serving at Camp LeJeuene with the Second Marine Division. Peters was doing a book tour for his first non-fiction title Fighting for the Future, and I got to meet and talk to him at the bookstore in the Main Exchange. He had enlisted in the Army five years before me and was commissioned three years before me. Both of us had served tours in Germany. He was an Intelligence officer with a specialization on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. I was a history major who in the wisdom of the Army assignment gods had been branched as a Medical Service Corps officer. Peters retired in 1998 as I was preparing to leave the Army for the Navy.

He certainly, like many military officers is very conservative but at the same time a realist. While initially supporting the war in Iraq he would become a critic by 2006 and in 2009 recommend pulling out of Afghanistan. He recently stated that assault weapons should be banned, something that is anathema to Fox and most of its loyal viewers.

Peters thought that President Obama was too soft on Putin and Russia, and despite being a big supporter of President Obama I had to agree with him. I think that while President Obama was in a no-win situation had he confronted and opposed Putin in 2016, he could have done more in 2015, and despite being in a no-win situation politically in 2016 that he should have hammered Putin and exposed the Russian attempts to undermine the country and elect Trump in 2016. His actions were too little and too late.

In his resignation from Fox, Peters showed something that is seldom seen in the media. He demonstrated courage and honor over personal gain. He had a good following on Fox and certainly could have stayed at the network and continued to make good money. But he finally hit the point with them that I hit in 2007, his honor and his commitment to his office would not allow him to stay.

His resignation latter was published by Buzzfeed on Tuesday. It is one of the most remarkable resignation letters I have ever read. It was an indictment of Fox and many of its hosts and commentators as pure propagandists “for a destructive and ethically ruinous administration.” I heartily agree with him. I have posted his letter in its entirety below.

On March 1st, I informed Fox that I would not renew my contract. The purpose of this message to all of you is twofold:

First, I must thank each of you for the cooperation and support you’ve shown me over the years. Those working off-camera, the bookers and producers, don’t often get the recognition you deserve, but I want you to know that I have always appreciated the challenges you face and the skill with which you master them.

Second, I feel compelled to explain why I have to leave. Four decades ago, I took an oath as a newly commissioned officer. I swore to “support and defend the Constitution,” and that oath did not expire when I took off my uniform. Today, I feel that Fox News is assaulting our constitutional order and the rule of law, while fostering corrosive and unjustified paranoia among viewers. Over my decade with Fox, I long was proud of the association. Now I am ashamed.

In my view, Fox has degenerated from providing a legitimate and much-needed outlet for conservative voices to a mere propaganda machine for a destructive and ethically ruinous administration. When prime-time hosts–who have never served our country in any capacity–dismiss facts and empirical reality to launch profoundly dishonest assaults on the FBI, the Justice Department, the courts, the intelligence community (in which I served) and, not least, a model public servant and genuine war hero such as Robert Mueller–all the while scaremongering with lurid warnings of “deep-state” machinations– I cannot be part of the same organization, even at a remove. To me, Fox News is now wittingly harming our system of government for profit.

As a Russia analyst for many years, it also has appalled me that hosts who made their reputations as super-patriots and who, justifiably, savaged President Obama for his duplicitous folly with Putin, now advance Putin’s agenda by making light of Russian penetration of our elections and the Trump campaign. Despite increasingly pathetic denials, it turns out that the “nothing-burger” has been covered with Russian dressing all along. And by the way: As an intelligence professional, I can tell you that the Steele dossier rings true–that’s how the Russians do things.. The result is that we have an American president who is terrified of his counterpart in Moscow.

I do not apply the above criticisms in full to Fox Business, where numerous hosts retain a respect for facts and maintain a measure of integrity (nor is every host at Fox News a propaganda mouthpiece–some have shown courage). I have enjoyed and valued my relationship with Fox Business, and I will miss a number of hosts and staff members. You’re the grown-ups.

Also, I deeply respect the hard-news reporters at Fox, who continue to do their best as talented professionals in a poisoned environment. These are some of the best men and women in the business..

So, to all of you: Thanks, and, as our president’s favorite world leader would say, “Das vidanya.”

The various oaths that I have sworn to the Constitution, first as an enlisted man and then as a Commissioned Officer in the Army, the Army National Guard, the Army Reserve, and the Navy are foundational to my life. I have served under six Presidents. I have agreed and disagreed with the various policies and positions of the first five, but never did I think that any of them were truly a threat to the Constitution and the foundation of the country as I believe that President Trump and his administration are such a threat.

It is my adherence to the Constitution; the radical proposition of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I could add the Gettysburg Address in which Abraham Lincoln gave new life to the propositions of the Declaration and the preamble of the Constitution. Now is the time for every American to be as recommit themselves to those ideals or lose them forever.

The President and his propagandists at Fox News are not patriots. One can place a thousand flags behind them or adorn the lapels of their suit jackets with American flag pins, but that does not mean that they are patriots. Patriots stand for those principles, and the Constitution; all of it, not just the parts that they agree with while working to undermine the protections of the Constitution to those who they may hate or disapprove.

In his book On Tyranny Dr Timothy Snyder wrote:

“The president is a nationalist, which is not at all the same thing as a patriot. A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best. A nationalist, “although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge,” wrote Orwell, tends to be “uninterested in what happens in the real world.” Nationalism is relativist, since the only truth is the resentment we feel when we contemplate others. As the novelist Danilo Kiš put it, nationalism “has no universal values, aesthetic or ethical.” A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves. A patriot must be concerned with the real world, which is the only place where his country can be loved and sustained. A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well—and wishing that it would do better.” 

Ralph Peters is a patriot whether you agree or disagree with him on various issues. He did the right thing for the right reason. Some may think that it took him too long to do so, but just how many others in the Fox News and Right Wing media vortex or the Republican Party have stated the truth as Lieutenant Colonel Peters did? Even those who publicly disagree with the President, with nothing to lose, often equivocate and show that they are cowards when after they say that they will stand against him, simply slink away until the next time.

So until the next time,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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“We’re Going to Have to Try to Top It” Trump’s Need for a Parade

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It was revealed yesterday that President Trump has ordered the military to conduct a military parade in Washington D.C. It was reported in the Washington Post on Tuesday and a military official noted:

“The marching orders were: I want a parade like the one in France,” said a military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the planning discussions are supposed to remain confidential. “This is being worked at the highest levels of the military.”

In the same article White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders noted:

“President Trump is incredibly supportive of America’s great service members who risk their lives every day to keep our country safe,” Sanders said. “He has asked the Department of Defense to explore a celebration at which all Americans can show their appreciation.”

The President who conspicuously avoided military service in Vietnam with five deferments, compared avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in 1980s New York to combat in Vietnam, called men like John McCain and others who were wounded or captured in Vietnam “losers”, combat veterans with PTSD “weak”, and that he knew more about ISIS war and strategy than American military leaders has wanted to display the instruments of American military power since he was elected. He requested such a display for his inauguration but the request was turned down and prior to the inauguration he told a reporter Karen Tumult when she asked how Americans would know that he had made America Great Again:

“We’re going to display our military. We’re going to display it. That military may come marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. That military may be flying over New York City and Washington, D.C., for parades. I mean, we’re going to be showing our military.”

But there is no lack of love, respect or appreciation from the military in the United States. The military is one of the most trusted and respected institutions in the country. In an era where trust most public and private institutions is collapsing the military, trust in the military, despite some erosion since the election of President Trump is still very high, some 72% of Americans have a high amount of trust in the military and its leadership. Trump’s politicization of the military is hurting it, but respect and trust for the military still remains high, and even those who do not trust military leadership still tend to appreciate and honor the troops. So I think that the argument by Ms. Sanders that we need an event were Americans can show their appreciation for the military is misplaced. We already have three days; Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day; two of them which are national holidays where we honor military personnel, veterans, and those who gave their lives in service of the country.

Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley noted:

“I don’t think there’s a lack of love and respect for our armed forces in the United States,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “What are they going to do, stand there while Donald Trump waves at them? It smacks of something you see in a totalitarian country — unless there’s a genuine, earnest reason to be doing it.”

But despite the official pronunciations of Ms. Sanders I think the President’s need for a parade and demonstration of America’s military power is more like Penis Envy based on his visit to Europe last year where he viewed the French Bastille Day Parade. After that event the President remarked:

“It was one of the greatest parades I’ve ever seen… It was two hours on the button, and it was military might, and I think a tremendous thing for France and for the spirit of France… We’re going to have to try to top it.”

The President seems to be jealous that the French President gets to preside over a military parade. But there is a difference between such displays in France and the United States.

The French parade coincides with Bastille Day the French equivalent of our Independence Day marking an event that was the tipping point of the French Revolution. Though it had been held since the revolution the annual parade began in 1880 about a decade after France was defeated by Prussia in the Franco Prussian War. It is closely connected to French independence and has become much less nationalistic over the past few decades. For many years the french have invited contingents from old allies, former colonies, and former enemies like Germany to participate. Likewise, French troops have marched under the banner of the European Union on a number of occasions.

The American experience is not at all similar. Military parades down Pennsylvania avenue are quite rare and with the exception of the inaugural parades of Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy which were held at points of high tension during the Cold War, almost every other parade has commemorated a military victory such as the Civil War, World War Two, and Operation Desert Storm, which should better be called the First Iraq War. There really is no precedent for such a parade when the nation is still engaged in war without end and when the real possibility for at least one major new war, possibly a nuclear war exists.

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But that being said there are real, pragmatic considerations for opposing such a parade and almost all of them deal with national security and the costs. Unlike France in which most of the units involved in the parade are stationed between 50 and 100 miles of Paris, the units needed to fulfill the President’s parade fantasy have to be moved hundreds of miles to get there and doing so would disrupt badly needed training cycles, deployment preparation, and cost tens of millions of dollars, even before the costs to the District of Columbia are added in, and let me remind you all of those costs come from Federal taxes. The last major victory parade, that after Operation Desert Storm cost over 12 million dollars which is close to 22 million now; but the problem is that the actual costs would probably be far more than that in an time when resources are much more constrained in which costs have gone up. In 1991 many of the troops involved were being demobilized and the armed forces being reduced in strength following the end of the Cold War; today’s military is stretched to the breaking point and if war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula anytime soon such a parade will mark a tragedy even if we win.

Since almost all of my life has some association with military service as a Navy dependent, Navy Junior ROTC Cadet, Army National Guard Enlisted Soldier, active duty, Army National Guard, Army Reserve Officer, and for the last 19 years as a Naval Officer I appreciate the support of the American people. But I would rather see that support shown by increased funding of the V.A., increased support to service members and their families, including health care. If the President wanted to honor veterans he could authorize the military to award the Cold War Service Medal or the Iraq Medal of Commitment through an executive order. The costs of doing one or both would be chump change in comparison to the rest of the military budget and as Napoleon Bonaparte noted: “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”

While he never served himself and has mocked combat veterans the President is a nationalist and authoritarian. Nationalists and authoritarians tend to wrap themselves around the military as a way of showing the strength that inwardly they don’t have.

Timothy Snyder wrote:

“The president is a nationalist, which is not at all the same thing as a patriot. A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best. A nationalist, “although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge,” wrote Orwell, tends to be “uninterested in what happens in the real world.” Nationalism is relativist, since the only truth is the resentment we feel when we contemplate others. As the novelist Danilo Kiš put it, nationalism “has no universal values, aesthetic or ethical.” A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves. A patriot must be concerned with the real world, which is the only place where his country can be loved and sustained. A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well—and wishing that it would do better.” 

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Is that Truly the Path of the Lord” A Reflection on Faith, Calling, and the Christmas Truce in the Age of Trump

palmerFriends of Padre Steve’s World

As a veteran who served in the badlands of Al Anbar Province during Christmas of 2007 I can relate to Father Palmer, the British priest and chaplain in the film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) when he makes the comment “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

I again watched that film tonight. The film is the story of the amazing and exceptional Christmas Truce of 1914. It is a film that each time I see it that I discover something new, more powerful than the last time I viewed it. It reminds me of serving in Iraq, at Christmas from my perspective as a Chaplain, and thereby giving voice to those who serve now, as well as those who served God’s people in hellish places before me. It reminds me of how much I hate war, and how much I often hate the clergy who are all too often, bloodthirsty cheerleaders for war.

As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre in the film, who during the truce conducts a Mass for all the soldiers, British, French and German in no-man’s land, who goes about caring for the soldiers both the living and the dead. His actions are contrasted with his Bishop who comes to relieve him of his duties and to urge on the replacement soldiers to better kill the Germans.

As the Chaplain begins to provide the last Rites to a dying soldier the Bishop walks in, in full purple cassock frock coat and hat and the chaplain looks up and kisses his ring.

As the chaplain looks at his clerical superior there is a silence and the Bishop looks sternly at the priest and addresses him:

“You’re being sent back to your parish in Scotland. I’ve brought you your marching orders.”

Stunned the Priest replies: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

The Bishop then sternly lectures the Priest: “I am very disappointed you know. When you requested permission to accompany the recruits from your parish I personally vouched for you. But then when I heard what happened I prayed for you.”

The Priest humbly and respectfully yet with conviction responds to his superior: “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.”

The Bishop seems a bit taken aback but then blames the Chaplain for what will next happen to the Soldiers that he has served with in the trenches: “Those men who listened to you on Christmas Eve will very soon bitterly regret it; because in a few days time their regiment is to be disbanded by the order of His Majesty the King. Where will those poor boys end up on the front line now? And what will their families think?”

They are interrupted when a soldier walks in to let the Bishop know that the new soldiers are ready for his sermon. After acknowledging the messenger the Bishop continues: “They’re waiting for me to preach a sermon to those who are replacing those who went astray with you.” He gets ready to depart and continues: “May our Lord Jesus Christ guide your steps back to the straight and narrow path.”

The Priest looks at him and asks: “Is that truly the path of our Lord?”

The Bishop looks at the Priest and asks what I think is the most troubling question: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

With that the Bishop leaves and goes on to preach. The words of the sermon are from a 1915 sermon preached by an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey. They reflect the poisonous aspects of many religious leaders on all sides of the Great War, but also many religious leaders of various faiths even today, sadly I have to say Christian leaders are among the worst when it comes to inciting violence against those that they perceive as enemies of the Church, their nation or in some cases their political faction within this country.

I was reminded of that last night and today as the President received the worship of his most vocally Christian cabinet members and the Vice President as they celebrated the passage of a tax cut bill that end up harming many more people than it will help, even as he edges closer to a devastating war with North Korea, a war that besides being more deadly than in since the World Wars will bring many unexpected and unintended consequences, none good, but I digress…

The Bishop who relieved Father Palmer went on to preach a sermon to newly arrived troops.

“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”

The sermon is chilling and had it not been edited by the director would have contained the remark actually said by the real Bishop that the Germans “crucified babies on Christmas.” Of course that was typical of the propaganda of the time and similar to things that religious leaders of all faiths use to demonize their opponents and stir up violence in the name of their God.

When the Bishop leaves the Priest finishes his ministration to the wounded while listening to the words of the Bishop who is preaching not far away in the trenches. He meditates upon his simple cross, takes it off, kisses it hand hangs it upon a tripod where a container of water hangs.

The scene is chilling for a number of reasons. First is the obvious, the actions of a religious leader to denigrate the efforts of some to bring the Gospel of Peace into the abyss of Hell of earth and then to incite others to violence dehumanizing the enemy forces. The second and possibly even more troubling is to suggest that those who do not support dehumanizing and exterminating the enemy are not suitable to remain in the house of the Lord. Since I have had people, some in person and others on social media say similar things to what the Bishop asks Palmer the scene hits close to home.

When I left Iraq in February 2008 I felt that I was abandoning those committed to my spiritual care, but my time was up. Because of it I missed going with some of my advisors to Basra with the 1st Iraqi Division to retake that city from insurgents. It was only a bit over a month after I had celebrated what I consider to be my most important Masses of my life at COP South and COP North on December 23rd as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In fact until very recently they were really the last masses that I felt the mystery and awe of the love of God that I used to so much feel.

When I left Iraq the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisers without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care. So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie. While I cannot prove it I do believe, and have heard from others who used to work at the Chief of Chaplains office that I have been shunned and punished by past and present leaders of the Chaplain Corps because of my witness in being open about my struggles with faith and PTSD. A can recount a number of incidents that would be of circumstantial evidence, but I digress. That being said I am much better off for that experience than I would be had it not occurred.

It has been ten years since those Christmas Masses and they still feel like yesterday. In the intervening years my life has been different. Just a year later I was walking home from church where my wife was to sing in the choir during the Christmas vigil mass. I couldn’t handle the crowds, the noise, and I felt so far away from God. That night I walked home in the dark looking up into the sky asking God if he still was there. If there had been a bar on the way home I would have stopped by and poured myself in.

Since Iraq I have dealt with severe and chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety and insomnia were coupled with a two year period where due to my struggles I lost faith, was for all practical purposes an agnostic. I felt abandoned by God, but even more so and maybe more importantly by my former church and most other Chaplains. It was like being radioactive, there was and is a stigma for Chaplains that admits to PTSD and go through a faith crisis, especially from other Chaplains and Clergy. It was just before Christmas in late 2009 that faith began to return in what I call my Christmas Miracle. But be sure, let no one tell you differently, no Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who has suffered the trauma of war and admitted to PTSD does not feel the stigma that goes with it, and sadly, despite the best efforts of many there is a stigma.

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many. Unlike a few years ago they now occupy the seat of political power as sycophants of the President, offering no prophetic voice but speaking the words of death covered in the veneer of the Christian faith.

As for me as opposed to . I had the floor kicked from out from under me in the summer of 2014 and it has been a hard fight and while I am beginning to get back to some sense of normal it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance that summer. I also still have the anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but working with my new therapist I am coming up with some effective coping mechanisms. As for faith, I do believe again, more often than not, though at the same time I doubt. Though I believe I think I still consider myself to be a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe and yet, I don’t and I don’t think that is a bad thing, I think it helps me understand those who no longer believe, those that struggle, and those who raised as Christians have left the faith.

Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will retire from the Navy in a few years, unless as I expect a major war breaks out with North Korea, and maybe Iran too.

However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home. This Sunday, Christmas Eve I will preach at my chapel’s Protestant service. Likewise as I wrote last week I had the honor of conducting the Christmas service for the German contingent of the NATO headquarters here.

533506_10151366982457059_868388211_nI expect that in the coming year I will do my best to speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power. The kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel as well as the leaders of the so called “Conservative Evangelicals” who support a President who says “Merry Christmas” even as he defecates on all who believe in the God who became incarnate as a helpless babe in a manger and who died on a cross.  In fact I saw a mocking meme of Trump saying “Merry Christmas” as he holds a bigger than life Bible to his chest from a very conservative evangelical friend on Facebook, it was blasphemous.

The French mystic Simone Weil said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” I think that sums up the President and his ardent Evangelical supporters. I don’t think they would recognize Christ if he walked among them and would have been among those shouting “Crucify him!” but of course I could be wrong in some individual cases.

So, this Christmas, like the theologian Paul Tillich I have come to believe  that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  In other words I am going to be faithful to the Crucified Christ and remain a complete pain in the ass to them until the day that I die.

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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