Category Archives: iraq,afghanistan

God In the Empty Places: Remembering Iraq

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the midst of all I have been writing lately, when I recalled yesterday that I had been writing on this site for eight years, it brought back a lot of memories. Those memories kept me up a lot of last night, and I realized that many of my newer readers don’t know about some of the events that brought me to where I am today. In December of 2007 while I was in Iraq I wrote an e-mail to my former denomination that was published in the denomination newsletter.

When I wrote it I was between missions and getting ready to head out to the Syrian border of Iraq for an extended visit with five of our Military Training Teams of advisors who were working with Iraqi Army and Border troops.

This is the unedited post from that article that I posted here in early March 2009. It is amazing to me, on this day that is also the 50th anniversary of the death of Bernard Fall who I quote in the original article, that so little has changed, except possibly for the worse.

Have a great night, tomorrow my series on civil rights and African American history continues.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past few months. While both have been part of my life for many years, they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. I can’t really explain it; I guess I am trying to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return.

The Chaplain ministry is unlike civilian ministry in many ways. As Chaplains we never lose the calling of being priests, and as priests in uniform, we are also professional officers and go where our nations send us to serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. There is always a tension, especially when the wars that we are sent to are unpopular at home and seem to drag on without the benefit of a nice clear victory such as VE or VJ Day in World War II or the homecoming after Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for us to give the credit to the Lord and equally easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God might have been involved. Such is the case in almost every war and Americans since World War Two have loved the technology of war seeing it as a way to easy and “bloodless” victory. In such an environment ministry can take on an almost “cheer-leading” dimension. It is hard to get around it, because it is a heady experience to be on a winning Army in a popular cause. The challenge here is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus, by caring for the least, the lost and the lonely, and in our case, to never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent among the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

But there are other wars, many like the current conflict less popular and not easily finished.The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different.In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, guerilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernable victory. These types of wars can drag on and on, sometimes with no end in sight. Since they are fought by volunteers and professionals, much of the population acts as if there is no war since it does often not affect them, while others oppose the war.

Likewise, there are supporters of war who seem more interested in political points of victory for their particular political party than for the welfare of those that are sent to fight the wars. This has been the case in about every war fought by the US since World War II. It is not a new phenomenon. Only the cast members have changed.

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This is not only the case with the United States. I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indo-China, placed in a difficult situation by their government and alienated from their own people. In particular I think of the Chaplains, all Catholic priests save one Protestant, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the epic defeat of the French forces that sealed the end of their rule in Vietnam. The Chaplains there went in with the Legion and Paras. They endured all that their soldiers went through while ministering the Sacraments and helping to alleviate the suffering of the wounded and dying. Their service is mentioned in nearly every account of the battle. During the campaign which lasted 6 months from November 1953 to May 1954 these men observed most of the major feasts from Advent through the first few weeks of Easter with their soldiers in what one author called “Hell in a Very Small Place.”

Another author describes Easter 1954: “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)

Of course one can find examples in American military history such as Bataan, Corregidor, and certain battles of the Korean War to understand that our ministry can bear fruit even in tragic defeat. At Khe Sahn in our Vietnam War we almost experienced a defeat on the order of Dien Bien Phu. It was the tenacity of the Marines and tremendous air-support that kept our forces from being overrun.

You probably wonder where I am going with this. I wonder a little bit too. But here is where I think I am going. It is the most difficult of times; especially when units we are with take casualties and our troops’ sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.

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For the French the events and sacrifices of their soldiers during Easter 1954 was page five news in a nation that was more focused on the coming summer. This is very similar to our circumstances today because it often seems that own people are more concerned about economic considerations and the latest in entertainment news than what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan. The French soldiers in Indo-china were professionals and volunteers, much like our own troops today. Their institutional culture and experience of war was not truly appreciated by their own people, or by their government which sent them into a war against an opponent that would sacrifice anything and take as many years as needed to secure their aim, while their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifice and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. Their sacrifice would be lost on their own people and their experience ignored by the United States when we sent major combat formations to Vietnam in the 1960s. In a way the French professional soldiers of that era have as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of them were citizen soldiers who did their service in an epic war and then went home to build a better country as civilians. We are now a professional military and that makes our service a bit different than those who went before us.

Yet it is in this very world that we minister, a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals. We go where we are sent, even when it is unpopular. It is here that we make our mark; it is here that we serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Our duty is to bring God’s grace, mercy and reconciliation to men and women, and their families who may not see it anywhere else. Likewise we are always to be a prophetic voice within the ranks.

When my dad was serving in Vietnam in 1972 I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that he was a “Baby Killer.” It was a Catholic Priest and Navy Chaplain who showed me and my family the love of God when others didn’t. In the current election year anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops. Our duty is to be there as priests, not be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because most churches, even those supportive of our people really don’t understand the nature of our service or the culture that we represent. We live in a culture where the military professional is in a distinct minority group upholding values of honor, courage, sacrifice and duty which are foreign to most Americans. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indo-China 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 Bein 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, readStreet Without Joy by Bernard Fall. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nurnberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

There is a picture that has become quite meaningful to me called the Madonna of Stalingrad. It was drawn by a German chaplain-physician named Kurt Reuber at Stalingrad at Christmas 1942 during that siege. He drew it for the wounded in his field aid station, for most of whom it would be their last Christmas. The priest would die in Soviet captivity and the picture was given to one of the last officers to be evacuated from the doomed garrison. It was drawn on the back of a Soviet map and now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin where it is displayed with the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation. I have had it with me since before I went to Iraq. The words around it say: “Christmas in the Cauldron 1942, Fortress Stalingrad, Light, Life, Love.” I am always touched by it, and it is symbolic of God’s care even in the midst of the worst of war’s suffering and tragedy.

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Filed under faith, History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, ministry, Political Commentary, Tour in Iraq

Holocaust Remembrance 2017: “Most evil is done by People who never make up their minds to be Good or Evil”

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I normally don’t post twice in a day but this I thought was important, for I believe that we are at a point in world history where the not so distant specter of a horrifying past is is rising before our eyes and all too many people cannot see it.

Friday, January 27th 2017 was Holocaust Remembrance Day. On that day seventy-two years ago the Soviet Red Army liberated the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, the centerpiece of the Nazi Death Camp machine. To be sure, in his panic to save his neck, in late 1944 Heinrich Himmler had begun to switch from his tactic of extermination to using the Jews as bargaining chips., but by then most of the Jews under Nazi control were dead. Those that remained, emaciated and dying by the thousands to starvation, and unchecked disease, as they were marched in ghastly conditions to camps deeper inside Nazi controlled areas.

On Friday two things happened in the United States that caused me to shake my head and wonder if we are becoming a place that will turn its eyes away from current atrocities, genocide, ethnic and religious cleansing, and walk away. President Trump issued a proclamation to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day, a statement that did not mention the Jews. How one remembers the Holocaust without mentioning the Jews is beyond me, but some of the President’s closest advisers, including Steve Bannon, are closely connected to the self-proclaimed Alt-Right, a movement of white supremacists and neo-Nazis looking for respectability. The second thing the President did was to issue an Executive Order halting the immigration of refugees from certain Muslim majority countries, and to cap the number entering. I’m not going to go into details about that but it is not the first time that the United States stopped refugees from entering the country on national security grounds, as in the 1930s and 1940s one of the reasons used to keep German Jewish refugees out of the country was exactly that, they might be Nazi spies and saboteurs, but I digress…

However, this is a day that we should never forget. The horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime, all in the name of “race purity” and the extermination of the Jews and others deemed by the Nazis to be “sub-human” or untermenschen is something that is hard for most to imagine. Last year about this time I finished reading Bettina Stangneth’s book, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer. While I am very well informed and educated on the lives, writings, actions, and statements of many of the Nazi war criminals, this new book on Eichmann is the most troubling that I have ever read. In particular it is the accounts of his writings and interviews with other pro-Nazi, or former Nazis in Argentina, particularly the Sassen Interviews, which span hundreds of hours of tape and thousands of pages of transcripts.

I am a Christian, a gentile, and a historian, as well as a thirty-five year military who served alongside our advisors and the Iraqis who fought alongside of us. I have lived in Germany, read, speak and write German and have many friends in that country, including members of the German military, retired and active duty.  My study and association with Holocaust survivors goes back to my college days at California State University Northridge when as an undergraduate history major I spent much of my time studying Germany from the first unification and the Kaiser Reich, the First World War, Versailles, Weimar and the Hitler Regime. My professor, Dr. Helmut Heussler, whose family left Germany in the late 1920s, served in the U.S. Army in World War II and was an interrogator at Nuremberg. I took a number of classes from Dr. Heussler, including Hitler’s Germany and the Holocaust. In the latter I had the chance to meet Holocaust survivor Mel Mermelstein, who was later played by Leonard Nimoy in the TV movie Never Forget. 

Since my college days I have continued to read and study, and to get a second Masters Degree in History in which much of my work dealt with the Nazi regime. I have visited the sites of former concentration camps including Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. I have been to the sites of the Nazi Party rallies in Nuremberg, as well as to the courtroom where the Nuremberg Trails were conducted. One day, God willing I will get to Auschwitz.

The Nazis had begun their persecution of the Jews shortly after Hitler took power in 1933. Later in the year the Enabling Act gave Hitler and his henchmen the legal means to begin their persecution of the Jews and others. These were followed by the Nuremberg Laws and other laws that targeted the Jews. Persecution increased throughout the 1930s, and sadly most countries refused to accommodate increased Jewish immigration. Then came Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, when on 9-10 November 1938, a series of orchestrated attacks on Jewish businesses, Synagogues, institutions and individuals. On that night close to 200 synagogues, 7000 Jewish businesses and 29 major department stores were destroyed or damaged. Over 30,000 Jews, mostly men, were arrested and sent to concentration camps, 91 people were killed outright, and several thousand died in the aftermath.

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When the Nazis invaded Poland, its Jews were rounded up and placed into ghettos where many died of starvation and abuse even before the ghettos were liquidated and the people who lived in them were deported to the extermination camps. In 1941 as the German military seemed to be assured of victory in the Soviet Union the Nazis decided to exterminate the Jews of Europe. In the Soviet Union four Einsatzgruppen followed each of the German Army Groups and systematically began to massacre the Jews of every city and village which German soldiers captured. Over a million and a half Soviet Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen, Ordungspolizei battalions, Army Security Divisions and locally recruited units.

At the Wansee Conference of January 20th 1942 the specifics of the “Final Solution” were mapped out by Himmler’s number two man, SS General Reinhard Heydrich. What followed is beyond the comprehension of most people, but the perpetrators were for the most part men and women who were terrifyingly normal.

The truly terrifying thing about the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust to me is that most of the men at Wansee, men that commanded the Concentration camps and the Einsatzgruppen were very ordinary men who simply believed that they were doing their jobs. Very few could be described as psychopathic killers by nature. They were lawyers, doctors, career police officials, businessmen, and bureaucrats who carried out an extermination campaign that killed by their own numbers between 5.5 and 6 million Jews, not to mention others deemed to be subhuman including the handicapped, the mentally ill, homosexuals, and other non-Jewish minorities like the Gypsies not to mention the wide variety of those considered political enemies. But it was the Jews that bore the most tragic fate.

When you read their writings, listen to them when they were interviewed, or watch footage of them during or after the war, you find that they had absolutely no empathy for their victims. When confronted about the evil that they engineered they invariably blamed their victims, just as many like them do today.

Most of the men who coordinated the massive effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe following the Wansee Conference of January 20th 1942 approached their jobs dispassionately. This was a common attitude among the civil service, military and police officials that oversaw the Holocaust. They simply did their jobs and followed the law, and for most of them, their victims meant nothing.

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Hungarian Jews being sent to Extermination Camps

Adolf Eichmann summed up the attitude of many when he said regarding his work to deport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in in just a few weeks during the fall of 1944, “Whether they were bank directors or mental cases, the people who were loaded on those trains meant nothing to me.” Speaking to Willem Sassen in 1957 Eichmann reveled in that accomplishment, “It was an achievement that was never matched before or since.” Eichmann also enjoyed leading his victims on, pretending that he might listen, and they might change his mind. Eichmann was proud of what he did. He told his staff, “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”

Hannah Arendt wrote of Eichmann:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

This was what made the Holocaust committed against the Jews of Europe by Nazi Germany a phenomenon different than other genocides. Many of the perpetrators were not driven by centuries old hate as in the Balkans, tribal blood lust as occurred in Rwanda, or the products of Soviet Communism or Communist Chines Maoist regimes.

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It was the racial ideology of the Nazis which deemed the Jews and other non-Aryans to be sub-human. That ideology undergirded the German treatment of the Jews, and the conduct of the war, especially in the East. But the execution of the plan required the bureaucratic, administrative, technical and legal skills brought to the table by ordinary men. Men who sought promotion, advancement and economic security for their families. Individually many would have never killed, but in their positions they ran the rail network, the factories, the banking and finance industries and supported the war effort, most not thinking much about the evil that they abetted or if they did finding a way, be it social, scientific, religious, patriotic, legal or simply in the name of efficiency.

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That is what makes the evil committed by them so terrifying. It is the product of “normal” people in an advanced Western nation. Make no bones about it, their actions were evil. They aided and abetted the genocide of the Jews, the disabled, other “sub-human” races, particularly Slavs, as well as those that they deemed less than suitable.

I think that the most chilling thing about the Holocaust was that the greatest atrocities were committed by ordinary men, sometimes well educated, decent family men. These were men who simply executed orders and often went home at night. Arendt wrote that “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” She was right, there was an ordinariness to the evil perpetrated by the Nazis, at the same time there are those who consciously decide to participate in evil.

It is important that we do not forget the Holocaust. It is also important to recognize that the instruments of that horror were on the whole “ordinary” men who as they saw it were simply doing their job. It is something that everyone needs to remember. Bettina Stangneth wrote “Systematic mass murder is not just the sum of isolated instances of sadism but the result of a political thinking that is perverted from the ground up.”

So many of the perpetrators saw nothing wrong in what they were doing, in fact at his trial in Jerusalem Eichmann said, “To sum it all up, I must say that I regret nothing.”

They believed that their victims were less than human and like so many people even today, they had no empathy. Gustave Gilbert, an American Army Psychologist at the major War Criminal Trials at Nuremberg said it so well: “Evil is the absence of empathy.”

It is important that we never forget, especially now when we could be watching it begin all over again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil rights, ethics, Foreign Policy, History, holocaust, iraq,afghanistan, laws and legislation, national security, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary

Everything Has Changed: The Aftermath of 9-11-2001 and Fifteen Years of War

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I posted a reflection yesterday on some of my reflections on the 9-11-2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, today a continuation of those thoughts. Yesterday morning after chapel and taking care of things I needed to for the opening day of our new class at the Staff college this morning I went to breakfast with Judy. We talked about how it was hard to believe that it had been fifteen years since the attacks of 9-11-2001. Judy mentioned that everything had changed since then.

As I recalled yesterday I can still remember the day like it had just happened, the images are burned into my memory and will never go away. I was getting out of my office at Camp LeJeune after an early morning counseling case and some administrative duties I was getting ready to head to the French Creek gym. I was about to close out my browser when I saw a little note on the Yahoo.com homepage: “Airplane crashes into World Trade Center.” It was about 0900 that tragic morning. I thought to myself, “Some dumb ass just crashed his Cessna into the building.”

The day was clear and absolutely gorgeous, a slight north wind and low humidity, a well-deserved break from what had been a hot and humid summer. Not that I had seen much of the Carolina summer having returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea in late July. When I got to my car the local talk radio station was broadcasting a second or third tier national talk radio host and he was screaming “oh my God another plane just flew into the towers!”

I was stunned and I drove over to the gym where I joined a large crowd of Marines and Sailors transfixed as we watched the towers burn. I went back to my office showered and went over to my battalion headquarters and was there when the South Tower went down at 0959.

Since then a lot has changed. I have made two deployments and traveled to the Middle East many more times. I came back from my deployment to Iraq with a serious case of PTSD and a health distrust of the right wing media, politicians, preachers, and especially the talk radio hosts that I used to listen to as often as I could. I remember being in Iraq in between missions to the far reaches of Al Anbar Province and watching the news on the televisions at the dining facility and wondering just what war that they were covering.

Before Iraq I could be considered a pretty solid “conservative” but eight years after going to war I am decidedly liberal. However, despite many allegedly conservative talk pundits, politicians and right wing preachers say just because a person is “liberal” does not mean that they are unpatriotic or do not care about our country or freedom. After serving in Iraq and seeing how certain people have equated patriotism with adherence to their political agenda I wholeheartedly believe that a person’s patriotism has nothing to do with their politics or their religious beliefs.

Before Iraq I was jaded by what happened to my dad’s generation after Vietnam when liberals called returning Veterans “baby killers” or “Nazis.” In fact I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that my dad was a “baby killer” in 1972 and in 1981 had some ass at UCLA call me a “ROTC Nazi.” As a result I had little love for the Left. After September 11th I followed the “conservative” talk radio crowd and Fox News more than I had ever before. The emotions that they stirred up were primal. But experience and reflection caused me to get beyond the pain of my past and the emotion of the present. Just as I detest those that characterized my dad’s service or my service as being criminal I also detest those that say one cannot be critical of those that advocate for war regardless of the human and economic cost or actual strategic benefit.

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A man (C) identified in the subtitiles as Al Karar the Iraqi gestures as he speaks at an undisclosed location in this image taken from undated video footage released by Islamic State. Islamic State warned in the new video on November 16, 2015 that countries taking part in air strikes against Syria would suffer the same fate as France, and threatened to attack in Washington. The video, which appeared on a site used by Islamic State to post its messages, begins with news footage of the aftermath of Friday's Paris shootings in which at least 129 people were killed. REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TVATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

I rejoiced when our SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden and every Al Qaeda leader that we have ushered into the arms of Allah. They have caused unmitigated suffering around the world, not just to us but to their own Islamic neighbors and deserve no pity and since they refuse to give quarter should be shown none. I feel the same way about ISIS and ISIL who are killing the Iraqis that I served alongside and their families, and if that sounds harsh I can’t help it. The attacks of 9-11 and the wars that have followed are all too personal and as far as the extremists of ISIl, Al Qaeda, and their affiliates around the world I am unapologetic, we should annihilate them. I would apply the words of the hero of the Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, Colonel Strong Vincent concerning the Confederates to the supporters of Al Qaeda and ISIL wherever the are:

“We must fight them more vindictively, or we shall be foiled at every step. We must desolate the country as we pass through it, and not leave a trace of a doubtful friend or foe behind us; make them believe that we are in earnest, terribly in earnest; that to break this band in twain is monstrous and impossible; that the life of every man, yea, of every weak woman or child in the entire South, is of no value whatever compared with the integrity of the Union.”

This will sound hard, but the life of every supporter of ISIL or Al Qaeda is of no value whatsoever to freedom and democracy.  I would apply that standard to any supporter of authoritarian dictatorship in any guise, not just militant Islamists, lest there be any doubt.

At the same time I question the strategic purpose and value of the campaign in we conducted in Iraq which seems to me has opened the gates of hell. I still think that the words that T.E. Lawrence wrote in 1920 about the British in Iraq are as applicable today as when he penned them; only the empires are different:

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

The British who Lawrence wrote about, gave their people reasons for going into Mesopotamia which were similar to those of the Bush administration over 80 years later. They cloaked their intentions in the words of liberation and protection, the British from the Turks, and the Americans from Saddam. Lawrence noted in words that are hauntingly familiar to those that paid attention to the American war in Iraq:

“Yet our published policy has not changed, and does not need changing. It is that there has been a deplorable contrast between our profession and our practice. We said we went to Mesopotamia to defeat Turkey. We said we stayed to deliver the Arabs from the oppression of the Turkish Government, and to make available for the world its resources of corn and oil. We spent nearly a million men and nearly a thousand million of money to these ends. This year we are spending ninety-two thousand men and fifty millions of money on the same objects.”

At the fifteen year mark I grieve for those that have lost their lives as well as loved ones in the attacks or in the wars that have followed. On September 11th 2001 2977 people were killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or on United Flight 93 which went down in Pennsylvania. One of those killed at the Pentagon was Lieutenant Colonel Karen Wagner who I had served with at the Academy of Health Sciences Brigade in 1987-1988.

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Since then about 4500 American military personnel have given their lives in Iraq and another 2400 in Afghanistan. NATO or coalition allies, excluding the Iraqi and Afghani military or police forces have lost about another 1300 military personnel and that does not count the soldiers of Iraq and Afghanistan who fought at our side. More than 45,000 American servicemen an women have been wounded in this fight. I know a decent number of those wounded and some of those that have died. The losses are intensely personal and to think that we have lost well over twice the number killed on September 11th 2001 in two wars; many of whom were children aged 8-12 years old on that tragic September day. Of course the numbers do not count those that died by their own hand after they returned from the war, a number that grows daily. I have known too many of them as well, heroes who could not make the adjustment coming home. Likewise I cannot forget the devastation that I saw in Iraq, the deaths of so many, some estimates of over a million civilian casualties, not county what has happening during the current ISIS/ISIL era.

That is why I am in favor of a hard war against these people. Some would say that a hard war would endanger civilians, and yes I agree with that. But then what is the alternative? To leave those same people under a regime that crushes them, enslaves them, takes their children and schools them to be child soldiers and Islamic Kamikazes? William Tecumseh Sherman told the mayor of Atlanta after ordering the civilian population expelled that “we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make the old and young, the rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”

That may seem hard, but I have been changed by that tragic event and the wars that have followed. I still shudder when I see the video of United Air Lines Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower or see the videos of the towers crashing down on that September day fifteen years ago.

The events of that tragic day changed me, and changed countless numbers of other Americans as well as others around the world. While we yearn to return to the day’s before 9-11-2001 that is impossible, there is too much water and too much blood that has passed under the bridge to go back, and those who advocate the same ideology as the attackers of 9-11 will not go back either.

As for me, I know that I can’t go back. But as much as I wish that I could I will have to live with reality, as I have for the last fifteen years, and I will continue to learn to live with it.  To live with the reality that this war will not end anytime soon and that far too many more people will die before this war ends. For those that find my opinions about this war repulsive or less than informed, I would actually hope and pray that you are right. But as my Iraqi friends say,

“Inshallah (إن شاء الله)”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under afghanistan, Foreign Policy, History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, national security, News and current events, terrorism, War on Terrorism

There Lies a Gulf Between that Time and Today: Remembering 9-11-2001

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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.

Fifteen 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 35 years of service. 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 in about four years.

Yesterday and today there were and will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting. President Obama has declared this a of prayer and remembrance which is also good. I will not attend the ceremonies because I still get too emotional, but I will be there in spirit, even though much of me is still in Iraq.

I will quietly reflect as I conduct my chapel services today, and as I get ready for our incoming class at the Staff College. I will also try to get a good run in and then spend some time with Judy, and then have a few beers with some friends at Gordon Biersch.

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. 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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The Bond

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is going to be a busy and sad day as we gather with friends to remember the life of our friend Dave Shaw. I wrote about his unexpected loss over the weekend and as such, since I am not going to have time to write anything new I am going to reach back into the archives an re-post an article that I wrote back in June of 2011 about the bond that is shared by those who go to war. Dave served as a Navy Corpsman aboard various Navy ships, hospitals, and with the Marines. He retired as a Chief Petty Officer, as did my dad. He was a friend and brother, and, like so many others he will be missed.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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.

From the Speech of King Henry V at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” 1599

In the midst of the petty politics surrounding the Afghan War so so ponderously and pompously purveyed by politicians and pundits of all strains I feel the need to speak up for that small band of brothers that has served in these wars. They are to steal a phrase applied to a previous generation the “New Greatest Generation” something that I am loathe to apply to much of the population at large. You see the cost of these wars is finally beginning to sink in, at least the financial cost. I’m not so sure that the human cost factors in for most people because the tiny percentage of the population that serve in the wars. The fact is that the volunteer military is an insular community which for the most part is based on bases away from most of the population. We used to have big bases in or near major cities, the New York Naval Yard, the Presidio of San Francisco, Long Beach Naval Shipyard, Fort Devens Massachusetts near Boston, Fort Benjamin Harrison Indiana at Indianapolis. But after the Cold War they and hundreds of other bases were eliminated and with them a connection to the active duty military. That is not the fault of the people in the big cities it just happened that way, no the military with a few exceptions is based away from most of the population. As a result people may support the troops but most have no idea what they do, how they live and what they suffer.

In spite of that this new Greatest Generation’s accomplishments will largely go unheralded by history. Unlike the “Greatest Generation” of World War Two they will probably not receive the full honors and accolades due them. This brotherhood of war who have served in the current War on Terror, Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns have now been serving in a war that is now twice as long as the American involvement in World War Two. Many, like me have been in this since the beginning and many have made multiple deployments to the combat zones. And many of us, if not most of us would go again. I know that I would because part of me is still in Iraq; for me this war is still un-won and un-finished.

The battles, Fallujah, Ramadi, Haditha, Mosul, Baghdad, Tal Afar, Marjah, Kandahar, Anaconda, Wanat and thousands of other places significant and insignificant are vivid in the minds of those that were there. Unfortunately for most of their countrymen they might as well be on a different planet.

With no disrespect to the Greatest Generation of World War Two, all of the current Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen volunteered to serve in time of war. At any given time only about one half of one percent is in uniform. In the three years and ten months of the Second World War about 16.1 Million Americans served in the military, the vast majority being draftees. Likewise the current generation has fought the war alone. The vast bulk of the country has lived in peace untouched by any inconvenience to daily life such as gas and food rationing, requirements to work in war industries and the draft as were citizens in World War Two. In the Second World War Americans shared the burden which in large part has not occurred in this war. While many have pitched in to help and volunteered to help veterans and their families the vast majority of people in this country are untouched by the war, not that there is anything wrong with that. This is simply a comparison of the situation that those who served in World War Two and the present conflicts faced. So I have to say that our current “Greatest Generation” is only a small part of the generation, as the line in Henry V “we few, we happy few who fought together….”

These Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen from the United States as well as our Allies who serve alongside of us are my brothers and sisters. They too are volunteers and represent a miniscule portion of their countries population. I am friends with military personnel from the UK, Canada and Germany who have served in the various combat zones or at sea and met quite a few others from France, the Netherlands and Australia. Of course my Iraqi friends who I served with while with our advisers in Al Anbar province who are not only trying to bring peace and stability back to their country but have to worry about the possibility that their families become the target of terrorists.

There are a number of things that unite us in this relatively small brotherhood. However, I think that this brotherhood could also be extended to our brothers who fought in Vietnam, French, Vietnamese, Australian, South Korean and American, the French who served in Algeria and the Americans and others that served in Korea. All of these wars were unpopular. All had little support on the home front and often returning veterans found themselves isolated and their sacrifices ignored or disrespected. For those Americans who serve in the current wars I can say that at least to this point the public has been much more supportive than they were to our Vietnam brothers, many of who were even disrespected by World War Two vets who had fought in “a real war.” I cannot count the Gulf War in this list as it was hugely successful and the returning vets were hailed as conquering heroes with ticker tape parades.

Our shared brotherhood includes our scars, physical, psychological, neurological and spiritual. Those who served on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who served in Vietnam, French Indo-China and Algeria have a common shared experience. All fought people who didn’t or don’t like foreigners no matter how noble our intentions and who by the way have a long history of outlasting people that they believe to be invaders or occupiers. We have had to fight wars with no front lines, no major units arrayed against us, but rather asymmetrical threats propagated by creatively devious foes who use low tech easily available technology and a willingness to sacrifice themselves and others to force attempt to kill us. Thus we have cleverly designed and often quite powerful IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices which can obliterate a HUMMV.

These threats create a situation where there is no front line and thus where every excursion outside of a FOB (Forward Operating Base) or COP (Coalition Outpost) is automatically a trip into a potential danger zone. Enemies can infiltrate bases posing as local nationals in either military uniform or as workers, rockets and mortars can be lobbed onto even the largest and most secure bases at any time and any vehicle driving by you on the road could be loaded with explosives and just waiting to blow you up while insurgents with automatic weapons and Anti-Tank Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) have taken down helicopters. When you have taken fire on the road, in the air and had rockets whiz over your head you this becomes a reality that you never forget.

As a result we many men and women with physical wounds as well as wounds that have damaged the psyche or the soul. PTSD is very common either from a direct encounter or the continual wear and tear of being in a danger zone wondering if you were to get hit that day every day of a tour. I have lost count now of people that I know who have mild to severe symptoms of PTSD. Traumatic Brain injury is another condition men and women attacked by IEDs, mortars and rockets experience. Likewise there are the injuries that shatter the soul. These are the images of ruined buildings, burned out vehicles, wounded bodies, injured children, refugees and wars desolation that can leave a person’s faith in God, or ideals that he or she believes in weakened or even destroyed. There are the smells of smoke, death, diesel, garbage and sewage that when encountered far away from the combat zone send us back.

The wars have been costly in lives and treasure. The “up front” casualty numbers are below; they do not include those with PTSD or mild to moderate TBI. They also do not count those that have died later after their service in VA or other civilian care, those that did not report their injuries and those that have committed suicide.

Iraq KIA US 4463 UK 179 Other 139 Total 4781

Afghanistan KIA US 1637 UK 374 Other 537 Total 2548

US Wounded Iraq 32227 Afghanistan 11191

The financial cost: over 1.2 trillion dollars and counting.

As many idealistic and patriotic military personnel question God, their National Leadership and even themselves because of their experience in Iraq or Afghanistan. I cannot get the image of a refugee camp on the Iraqi Syrian border full of Palestinian refugees who have nowhere to go; they had been invited to Iraq under Saddam and have been sitting on the border trying to get home for years now. The Palestinian authority wants nothing to do with them. I cannot smell smoke or hear a helicopter or pass a freshly fertilized field without being reminded of Iraq.

These men and women are my brothers and sisters. I have seen quite a few of my colleagues at the Naval Medical Center and Naval Hospital deploy and deploy, the medical personnel don’t get much of a break. These are my friends and I do get concerned for them and pray earnestly for their safe return. I wish that I could go with them because I know them and have already walked with them through the dark valley of the shadow of death in the Medical Center ICU or the wards and clinics of the Naval Hospital. We already have a bond that will not be broken.

It is now four years since I was in the process of leaving for Iraq and three years since my PTSD crash. However, I still would do it again in a heartbeat. There is something about doing the job that you were both trained to do and called to do that makes it so. Likewise the bonds of friendship and brotherhood with those who you serve are greater than almost any known in the human experience. Shared danger, suffering and trauma bind soldiers together, even soldiers of different countries and sometimes with enemies. I remember the conversation that I had with an Iraqi Merchant Marine Captain on a ship that we had apprehended for smuggling oil violating the United Nations sanctions. The man was a bit older than me, in his early 60s. He had been educated in Britain and traveled to the US in the 1960s and 1970s. He had the same concerns as any husband and father for his family and had lost his livelihood after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. He was a gentleman who provided for his crew and went out of his way to cooperate with us. In our last meeting he said to me: “Someday I hope that like the Americans, British and the German soldiers at the end of the Second World War can meet after the war is over, share a meal and a drink in a bar and be friends.” That is my hope as well.

In the final episode of the series Band of Brothers there is a scene where one of the American soldiers, Joseph Liebgott who came from a German Jewish family interprets the words of a German General to his men in the prisoner compound. The words sum up what the Americans had felt about themselves and likewise the bond that all soldiers who serve together in war have in common, if you have seen the episode you know how powerful it is, I ended up crying when I heard it the first time and cannot help but do so now that I have been to the badlands of Al Anbar Province.

“Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

As do we.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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We, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers: Reflecting on D-Day


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-two years ago today American, British, Canadian, and Free French forces landed on the beaches of France on the Normandy Peninsula to begin the liberation of Europe. 

I have written a good number of articles about the invasion on this site, in fact you can look them up, but instead of editing an older article or looking at some aspect of the invasion that I haven’t before I wanted to share a few thoughts. 

This past week, beginning during the Memorial Day weekend I spent a lot of time doing reading and reflection. I also decided to watch a number of films, and series that dealt with D-Day and the fight to liberate Europe from the Nazis. I have been to Normandy, in fact I have actually taught there at Sainte Mere Eglise and Pont du Hoc just prior to the 60th anniversary of D-Day. For me it was a moving experience to stand in those locations where so many men contended against the military forces of a regime so evil that it defies the imagination. 

As I said, in addition to reading and reflecting I took time to watch some films, as well as a television mini-series that dealt with that time in history. I watched the film A Bridge too Far on Memorial Day and then began to watch the ten episodes of the series Band of Brothers. When I was done with those last night I watched the film the Longest Day. I thought about watching Saving Private Ryan, but every time I watch that film I am so overcome with emotion that it is hard to function the next day. 


Anyway, this was the first time that I have watched all ten episodes of Band of Brothers in order in a short period of time. I was glad that I did it that way. As I watched it I thought of my own service and those men who have been my “band of brothers” be it in Iraq, or on a boarding team in the Persian Gulf. There is something about serivice in a combat zone and in harm’s way which cannot be replicated in any other part of life. 

The series really captures the constant wear and tear on the human mind, body, and spirit when one goes to war. It captures the bonds that most people today never experience. There were quite a few times where I knew exactly what they were going through, what they were thinking, and what they felt; including the paradoxes of seeing the evil committed by some, but also of recognizing that many of the enemy soldiers were really not that different from us. 

Today we remember that ever shrinking number of men who landed on the beaches of Normandy, fought their way across France, Belgium, and Holland before driving into Hitler’s Germany. I have had the great honor of knowing a number of those men, and even burying one of the men who served in the unit immortalized in Band of Brothers. In this time when so many have never served in the military in any form, and even fewer who have served in combat, it is important not to forget their memory, nor those who have served in subsequent wars. 

There was a segment of one of the Band of Brothers episodes where one of the soldiers was reflecting on how distant the war was to many Americans by New Year’s Day 1945, even though the men were fighting and dying to repel the Germans after the Ardennes Offensive, which we now call the Battle of the Bulge and others were fighting and dying against the Japanese in the Pacific. Those men wondered what it would be like to return home after the war, among a people who didn’t understand. It was a question that many of us asked when we came home from Iraq, and others did coming home from Korea, Vietnam, or Afghanistan. 


The men of the Band of Brothers had the same kind of issues coming home as we do today, some dealt with them better than others, just like today. But the way changed them all and it also bound them to each other. 

In his play Henry V William Shakespeare wrote, 

“And Crispin Crispain 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 today who 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 abed shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their man hoods cheap while any speaks that fought with us on Saint Crispin’s Day” 

We, we happy few, we band of brothers. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+


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Dreaming of Home… Oceans Away: A Post-Memorial Day Meditation

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British Grave at Habbanyah, Al Anbar, Iraq

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Though it is now the day after Memorial Day I believe that this reflection is worth the read, as well as listening to the music that is part of it.

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After the end of the American Civil War, the poet Walt Whitman reflected on the human cost of it. Whitman wrote,

“Ashes of soldiers South or North, As I muse retrospective murmuring a chant in thought, The war resumes, again to my sense your shapes, And again the advance of the armies. Noiseless as mists and vapors, From their graves in the trenches ascending, From cemeteries all through Virginia and Tennessee, From every point of the compass out of the countless graves, In wafted clouds, in myriads large, or squads of twos or threes or single ones they come, And silently gather round me…”

I have been posting a number of articles about Memorial Day this weekend, all of which were edited versions of previous articles posted before the weekend began. As such I had time this weekend to reflect on the day, and the sacrifices of those who never returned home, many of who lay in graves on or near the battlefields that they fought and died on so far away from home.

Memorial Day is always an emotional time for me, especially since I returned from Iraq in 2008, and this weekend I have been thinking about the men and women that I knew who died in action or died after they left the service, some at their own hand, unable to bear the burdens and trauma that they suffered while at war. In an age where less than one percent of Americans serve in the military, I think that it is important that we take the time to remember and reflect on the human cost of wars.

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I think of the battlefields that I have served on in Al Anbar Province, the one my father served on at An Loc, Vietnam, or the battlefields and the graveyards I have been to, Verdun, Waterloo, Arnhem, Normandy, Belleau Wood, Luxembourg, the Shuri Line, the Naktong River, Yorktown, Chancellorsville, Antietam, Stone’s River, Bentonville, Gettysburg, the wrecks of the USS Arizona and USS Utah at Pearl Harbor, and so many more, I think about the men and women who never returned. To me all of these places are hallowed ground, ground that none of us can hallow, the sacrifices of the men who gave their last full measure of devotion have done that better than we can ever do.

There are some songs that are haunting yet comfort me when I reflect on the terrible costs of war, even those wars that were truly just; and yes there are such wars, even if politicians and ideologues demanding revenge or vengeance manage to mangle the peace following them. Of course there are wars that are not just in any manner of speaking and in which the costs far outweigh any moral, legal, or ethical considerations, but I digress…

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of the Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg wrote something that talks about the importance and even the transcendence of the deeds of those who lost their lives in those wars fought and died to achieve.

In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls… generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

Elton John wrote and performed this song, Oceans Away on the centenary of the First World War. It speaks of the men that never came home, and he related it to those who continue to go off to war today.

I hung out with the old folks

In the hope that I’d get wise

I was trying to bridge the gap

Between the great divide

Hung on every recollection

In the theater of their eyes

Picking up on this and that

In the few that still survive

 

Call em up

Dust em off

Let em shine

The ones who hold onto the ones, they had to leave behind

Those that flew, those that fell,

The ones that had to stay,

Beneath a little wooden cross

 

They bend like trees in winter

These shuffling old grey lions

Those snow-white stars still gather

Like the belt around Orion

Just to touch the faded lightning

Of their powerful design

Of a generation gathering

For maybe the last time

Oceans away

Where the green grass sways

And the cool wind blows

Across the shadow of their graves.

Shoulder to shoulder back in the day

Sleeping bones to rest in earth, oceans away

Call em up

Dust em off

Let em shine

The ones who hold onto the ones, they had to leave behind

Those that flew, those that fell,

The ones that had to stay,

Beneath a little wooden cross

Oceans away

Elton John “Oceans Away”

 

Likewise I find myself thinking about all those times alone overseas, and realize that many did not come home. The song I’m Dreaming of Home or Hymne des Fraternisés from the film Joyeux Noel which was adapted by French composer Philippe Rombi from the poem by Lori Barth I think speaks for all of us that served so far away, both those who returned and those who still remain oceans away.

I hear the mountain birds

The sound of rivers singing

A song I’ve often heard

It flows through me now

So clear and so loud

I stand where I am

And forever I’m dreaming of home

I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

 

It’s carried in the air

The breeze of early morning

I see the land so fair

My heart opens wide

There’s sadness inside

I stand where I am

And forever I’m dreaming of home

I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

 

This is no foreign sky

I see no foreign light

But far away am I

From some peaceful land

I’m longing to stand

A hand in my hand

… forever I’m dreaming of home

I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home.

Please take the time to remember those who whose spirits still dream of home, oceans away.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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